The dramatic events of May 2, enacted in Pakistan’s small, sleepy town of Abbottabad have surely shaken the world. The global icon of al Qaeda – Osama bin Laden – has been ‘eliminated’ through a well-executed, covert operation. This was a major victory for charismatic US president Barack Obama especially given his dwindling popularity, and will help him survive in office, perhaps, for another term. It is unlikely that this development will lead to the end of global terrorism. While his death may have symbolic value, Osama was not in any case in charge of al Qaeda operations and hence the impact may not be much.
The most significant aspect of this game-changing event, perhaps, is the cutting of all ties between al Qaeda and sections of our security establishment. While Pakistan’s assistance in executing the operation against bin Laden’s hideout is being downplayed for political reasons, it should be obvious that all this couldn’t have happened without its active help. For all its front line status, the Pakistani state has not yet permitted the Americans to operate in the ‘settled’ areas, the way unmanned drones work in Fata. The recent hullabaloo over the strained Pakistan-America relationship has once again proved to be exaggerated: Stories were spun for domestic political consumption in both countries. The active engagement, despite the tensions, continues – especially on intelligence matters. Nevertheless, serious questions are being raised about Pakistan’s high levels of tolerance for terrorists on its soil and perhaps sympathy among some elements for the former. The fact that Osama bin Laden’s hideout was only a few hundred yards away from the main gate of a prestigious military training academy helps fuel suspicions on this issue. Furthermore, the house he was reportedly living in had been constructed in 2005 and apparently had features such as high walls with barbed wire and with no phone or internet connection. How could his presence go unnoticed for so long? These and other questions will become clearer as the details of this operation become public and many missing links explained.
One hopes that Pakistan’s civil and military leadership is cognisant of the backlash that will inevitably come about as details of Pakistan’s involvement in this operation become public. With bin Laden dead, only a symbolic figurehead has been lost. Over the last few years, al Qaeda has moved out from the northwest to major Pakistani urban centres and entered into an alliance with the Tehreek-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as sectarian outfits and renegade elements of militant groups.
Al Qaeda does not believe in the way the current Pakistani state is structured. It shuns the Constitution and finds democracy as un-Islamic. Therefore, this setback is not a major one, as al Qaeda’s ground capabilities, despite the disorganisation and fragmentation, and its ability to strike along with the TTP in recent years will continue to pose a serious threat to Pakistan.
Bin Laden’s death, therefore, is a watershed. It marks the beginning of a new phase of political Islam in Pakistan and perhaps the world. Those celebrating outside the White House, in New York and elsewhere, are not too aware of the sacrifices that Pakistanis are making in the war on terror. We have lost thousands of innocent citizens, soldiers and security officials. In the last few years, at least 80 security installations have been attacked in Pakistan, not to mention the tacit imposition of an oppressive ideology through barbaric attacks on public spaces and cultural markers of Pakistani society.
The Pakistan-US relationship will now have to enter a new phase. It is time for the US to acknowledge how we have suffered in the process and how Pakistan’s instability is directly linked to battles in the neighbourhood. Pakistan’s military leadership needs to reassess its positioning on the issue of terrorism. Recent whipping up of anti-Americanism was a bad idea. It only radicalises the public and hides the ugly truths. A realistic and rational approach to engagement with America must be espoused as an imperative policy choice. Pakistan may not be able to tackle al Qaeda alone.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2011.