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.
Secondly, there is the question of whom we are strengthening. The present government led by the generally pro-Western leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) may be a reliable partner; but this government will not last forever. The next government will almost certainly be led by the opposition PML(N) of Nawaz Sharif, and will probably include the Tehrik-e-Insaf of Imran Khan. To judge by their public and private statements, they will be no more reliable in the fight against al-Qaeda than is the Pakistani military.
That leaves two further short-term options. The first is economic pressure, starting with a reduction in U.S. aid, and progressing to economic sanctions if necessary. When it comes to serious economic pressure, the problem is that Pakistan’s economic situation is already so weak that for pressure to be tough enough to be effective, it might be tough enough to crumple up the Pakistani economy altogether, with frightening results for the immiseration and radicalisation of Pakistan’s population.
For while it is entirely true that I have argued that Pakistan is more resilient than it looks, and is not yet a failed or failing state, the United States certainly cannot deliberately try to make it one—unless Pakistan has in effect become an open enemy. Even without the apocalyptic threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or materials falling into the hands of terrorists, a serious fraying of the Pakistani military would lead to anti-aircraft missiles, trained engineers and immense stores of munitions and equipment going astray. That in itself would raise the terrorist threat to the West by an order of magnitude, and absolutely ensure defeat in Afghanistan. For it must be stressed that—provenly in the case of the Afghan Taliban, probably in the case of al-Qaeda—the Pakistani military has given shelter to our enemies, it has not yet actually armed them.
Instead of economic pressure, what has been widely advanced as a means of U.S. coercion is a radical reduction in military aid to Pakistan. This does indeed seem very appealing. It would not greatly affect Pakistan’s ability to fight against the Islamist revolutionary threat to Pakistan itself, since for its own good reasons the Pakistani military is now committed to that fight; and it would indeed send a strong message of displeasure to Pakistan’s generals.
The problem here can be summed up in one word: China; for Pakistan is in fact China’s only real ally in the world, and energy land routes through Pakistan are regarded in Beijing as an important insurance against the possibility of U.S. or Indian naval blockade of the sea lanes from the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, in recent years, Beijing has seemed to take a very cautious approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, largely (or so I have been told by well-informed Chinese sources) because the Chinese government has genuinely not been sure how to proceed, given the hideous complexity of the issues, fear of antagonising the U.S., lack of confidence in the Pakistani state and economy, and its own concerns about Islamist militancy.
However, Chinese investment in Pakistani infrastructure has been considerable, and Chinese supplies of arms to Pakistan have also been growing steeply. Since the death of Bin Laden, however, Chinese statements have emphasised their support for Pakistan and their appreciation for Pakistan’s antiterrorism efforts. This raises the strong possibility that any reduction in U.S. help to Pakistan will simply be matched by an increase in Chinese help. That at least is the hope of the Pakistani establishment, and they may well be right.
That applies with even greater force to another form of pressure widely demanded in the United States, namely a closer U.S. alliance with India openly targeted against Pakistan. This would ensure increased Chinese help to Pakistan, and would absolutely infuriate ordinary Pakistanis. In addition, India is a very dangerous ally in the war on terror. Its main opposition party has structured its whole ideology around hatred of Islam; and with its complicity and that of local Indian police, savage massacres have been carried out against India’s Muslim minority. Those in Gujarat in 2002 claimed around ten times as many victims as the Mumbai terrorist attacks.