The daring raid that killed Osama Bin Laden marked a turning point not only in U.S-Pakistan ties but also in power relations within Pakistan. Most observers have focused on the first, but have failed to understand how worsening civil-military relations in Pakistan have contributed to the recent meltdown between Washington and Islamabad.
President Obama’s decision to launch Operation Neptune Spear without informing Pakistan exploded the myth of the U.S.-Pakistani “strategic partnership.” The discovery of Bin Laden close to the Pakistani Military Academy in Abbotabad—almost certainly protected by elements of its “deep state”—marked Pakistan as a “frenemy” rather than the “ally” it regularly claimed to be.
The consequent upsurge in American resentment, in turn, reinforced the Pakistani military view of Washington as a formidable but fickle friend. This peculiar marriage of convenience, where America was minimally appeased as long as the generals were well compensated and their interests protected, was torn asunder by the events of May 2, 2011. But what escalated the crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations since that day was something unanticipated: the army’s plummeting credibility in the eyes of its own populace.
The shock that the United States could discover Bin Laden from thousands of miles away in a cantonment town, when he was overlooked by the military and its powerful intelligence services, confronted the Pakistani public with one of two possibilities: either their army was malicious, harboring an enemy whose allies were ravaging Pakistan every day, or it was incompetent, incapable of its discharging its principal task of protecting the nation.
In either case, the Bin Laden affair raised the fundamental question of why such a military was offered preferential access to the public trough given its debilitating failures. The ease with which homegrown insurgents were able to attack a major Pakistani naval base, even as the intelligence services, for all their fecklessness, were widely suspected of torturing and killing a prominent Pakistani journalist who had uncovered connections between the deep state and extremists, filled the Pakistani populace with dismay and revulsion.
Not since the disastrous Kargil war of 1999 has the army’s reputation fallen so low. In a praetorian state, a loss of credibility is a threat to survival—and, hence, the Pakistani army struck back resolutely and early.
In the immediate aftermath of the Bin Laden raid, it looked like Pakistan might have finally seized a moment for introspection. In his phone conversation with President Obama, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, struck exactly the right note, recognizing correctly that Bin Laden’s death was a victory for both the United States and Pakistan. Given the disasters Islamist radicals have wreaked in Pakistan, his elimination—however achieved—was welcome news and the main task for both countries was to resolutely pursue the antiterrorism campaign because, as Zardari later put it, “the forces of modernity and moderation remain under serious threat.”
Unfortunately for Zardari, Rawalpindi—the headquarters of the Pakistani military—did not get the memo. Within days of his conversation with Obama, the army began hounding the civilian government for betraying the national interest by weakly opposing American military action after first having liberally issued visas to U.S. operatives that allegedly made the intrusion both inevitable and easy.
Before long, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani would be threatening the United States with a military response in the event of another similar operation, while defending the honor of the military and the intelligence services. Far from exploiting the opening created by Bin Laden’s death for reflection on Pakistan’s continued dalliance with jihadism, the official debate pressed by the army now centered on Pakistani sovereignty and the contempt conveyed by the United States in breaching it.
Except for small bastions of Pakistani liberalism, which persisted in asking the hard questions about the army’s involvement in Bin Laden’s sanctuary and what that meant for Pakistan’s future, the deep state successfully kept up the diversionary drumbeat about bruised sovereignty—a particularly ironic focus given that the purported ignorance about Bin Laden’s presence illuminated Pakistan’s empty sovereignty even more than the ensuing American raid.
A strong civilian government might have used this moment to demand the resignation of the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff and the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), holding them accountable for their failures. In Pakistan, however, the opposite happened: in a particularly galling moment, some civilian politicians close to the army actually called on Zardari and Gilani to resign on the grounds that the Bin Laden episode demonstrated that their management of national security—on which they exercise no oversight, let alone control—was found wanting!
Operation Neptune Spear has thus proved to be a turning point—but not in the manner expected, at least concerning Pakistan. Far from strengthening civilian authority, the army’s embarrassment has provided new opportunities to decisively undermine counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and further weaken the civilian regime—even as the Pakistani military sold fantastic stories about the army chief’s struggle to keep his job because of “excessive” cooperation with the United States.
While recent Pakistani actions, such as the arrest of U.S. informants who supported the Bin Laden mission, the compromise of operations targeting facilities that produce improvised explosive devices, the reduction of Special Forces components training the Pakistani Frontier Corps, the sharply increased constraints on clandestine American counterterrorism operations inside Pakistan, the demanded diminution in the size and the status of the U.S. military assistance mission in Islamabad and the continued support of jihadi groups that continue to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan, remain disconcerting, the United States will find ways to circumvent these problems, albeit at greater cost and with greater risks.
More significant, however, is the damaging enervation of Pakistan’s already-frail civilian authority. While continuing American appeasement of its generals has contributed mightily to this outcome, the demise of the civilian government on issues of national security will not only undermine President Zardari’s bold assurance that “the war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s,” but it will also subvert Pakistan’s stability by further strengthening the power of the very military that has taken the country to perdition repeatedly since its formation.