Punishing Pakistan

Washington must send a message. For their own sake, Pakistanis must listen.

Assuming—as seems overwhelmingly probable—that there was not a secret deal between the U.S. and Pakistan to kill Bin Laden, the question is only between Pakistani military incompetence and complicity when it comes to his location. Incompetence is possible, but in my judgement unlikely. I have visited Abbottabad, and I do not see how Pakistani intelligence can have failed to investigate that house—not to look for Bin Laden, but for Pakistani terrorists who might have targeted the numerous military institutions in the district.

If Pakistan’s argument of incompetence is to receive any credence whatsoever, then as a minimal first step the chiefs of both Pakistan’s military intelligence services, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI) should draw the logical conclusion from this and resign. Indeed, that is the first thing on which the U.S. should insist as a result of this affair.

That leaves complicity in sheltering Bin Laden, either by a group within the ISI, or by the military leadership itself. The first would demonstrate a criminal failure to exercise discipline over a vital military institution; the second a deeply hostile attitude to the United States and the West.

This would be true even if Bin Laden was being kept on ice to be sacrificed to the United States as a bargaining counter later. If, as the latest statements from the U.S. administration suggest, Bin Laden was exercising a degree of operational control over al-Qaeda from his Abbottabad hideout, then the complicity of the Pakistani military would be a matter so grave that it would cast them in the role of North Korea in terms of international responsibility.

I am not sure that I believe this latest administration line, both because his ability to exercise real control through a tiny number of couriers seems somewhat improbable, and because the administration has an obvious motive to exaggerate the level of their achievement in killing Bin Laden. However, it certainly underlines the crucial importance of establishing what the Pakistani military may have been up to.

If the consensus of U.S. official analysts and intelligence officers is that the Pakistani military was indeed sheltering Bin Laden, what should be the response on the part of the United States and the West? The answers to this are not at all easy, or Washington would have found them in response to the complicity of the ISI in planning (and possibly in ordering, though this is not clear) the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008 which killed U.S. citizens along with so many Indians.

However, some sort of answer must be found. As I have written, I—like many other observers and, indeed, officials—was prepared to extend a measure of tolerance to the Pakistani military for its shelter to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban and past support for terrorist attacks on India (if only because this so clearly reflected the democratic will of the great majority of Pakistanis), as long—but only as long—as they genuinely and effectively cooperated in preventing terrorist attacks on the West; since after all that is what our soldiers in Afghanistan are supposed to be there to prevent.

My belief was supported by the fact that Pakistani intelligence had in fact given substantial help against international terrorism, including the arrest of a leading Indonesian terrorist in Abbottabad itself in January, and his handing over to the Indonesian authorities. If however the Pakistani military sheltered Bin Laden, then the basis for our tolerance is close to collapse. To reestablish it, Pakistani intelligence will have to do something really significant against the remaining al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and do it quickly. They must also of course give U.S. investigators full access to Bin Laden’s widows who were left behind by the raid.

Failing that, how can we bring pressure to bear on Pakistan? Launching drone attacks against Mullah Omar and other leaders of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistani Balochistan (hitherto an area which deliberately has been spared such attacks at the insistence of the Pakistanis) will solve nothing. On the contrary, we would only kill the very people whom we need to talk to in order to negotiate some kind of orderly and honorable exit from Afghanistan—since it is miserably clear that present U.S. strategy has no chance of bringing this about. Launching drone attacks against militant targets in Pakistan’s urban areas would radicalize the population and vastly increase terrorist recruitment. This should take place if, and only if, such groups have actually launched an attack on the U.S.

Strengthening the Pakistani civilian state so as to increase its control over the military and military intelligence is a good idea in principle, but it runs into two major obstacles. The first is that given the nature of the Pakistani state and the character of its political classes, this requires a process lasting a generation or more, and requiring not a strengthening but a fundamental transformation of Pakistan’s political system and therefore of its society.