Coming Clean With Pakistan’s Street
Many have been left wondering how Osama bin Laden could have been hiding out so close to Pakistan’s security services without their knowledge. How likely is it that some in the security services knew he was in Pakistan?
This is a really a tough one because we still don’t know all the facts. We can hope Pakistani intelligence didn’t know Osama’s location, but hope isn’t a policy.
Recent history suggests that the Inter-Services Intelligencehelps and hurts the US mission to stabilize Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan. The ISI has helped the CIA capture or kill 600 al-Qaeda operatives, including the mastermind of 9/11 – Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. In 2009, the Pakistani successfully cleared – and continues to hold – the Swat valley and South Waziristan from insurgents who threatened US/NATO in Afghanistan’s east and the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Meanwhile, working closely with US trainers and bolstered by American equipment – night vision capabilities, attack helicopters, Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets – the Pakistani military instituted a comprehensive counterinsurgency overhaul through better training and successful information operations to get the Pakistani street on their side against selective insurgents. They didn’t, however, go after or create support to go after the Haqqani network or the Afghan Taliban. These are considered assets against perceived and real Indian influence in Afghanistan.
As a result, Pakistan hurts the US/NATO mission by protecting certain insurgents – Haqqanis and Afghan Taliban – and helps by going after others – the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, Osama bin Laden’s location is a puzzle that now puts Pakistan support against al-Qaeda in question. So I think the ISI alumni network may be more involved in having helped the al-Qaeda operative survive and thrive. In fact, since 2002, former ISI officers have continued to help al-Qaeda and others, although serving ISI officials probably haven’t been supporting al-Qaeda because of some ‘house cleaning’ that has taken place since 2009.
How damaging is the fact that bin Laden was hiding out so close to Islamabad going to be for US-Pakistan relations?
Undoubtedly, this is very embarrassing for the Pakistanis. It puts a lot of pressure on the US Congress and by extension the White House, which has clearly stated that the Pakistani military and intelligence helped in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But I think the calls from some US senators and congressmen to cut aid are hyperbolic and dangerous and divorced from reality. There’s also still significant congressional and White House support for US military and development aid to Pakistan because Washington won’t allow the creation of a failed nuclear state.
Correspondingly, will the fact that US Special Forces were operating deep in Pakistan’s territory hurt ties with the Pakistani government?
For three years, a small contingent of US Special Forces have been working closely with the Pakistan military and have been located close to the Tarbela air base. So I think the Navy Seals involved flew from Tarbela airbase to kill Osama. The Pakistani military invited Special Forces trainers to train Frontier Corps and Pakistani Special Forces (SSG Commandoes), training that was instrumental in the success of the Pakistan surge.
But most ordinary Pakistanis are unaware of the Pakistani-military-permitted-presence or the mission of US Special Forces. Anti-American media outlets, meanwhile, stoke the narrative that US Special Forces are in Pakistan to foment the insurgency and take over Pakistani nukes. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis believe this narrative. So Washington and Islamabad must make their partnership transparent to American tax-payers and Pakistani aid recipients.
So what is broad Pakistani public opinion toward the US likely to be?
Negative, negative, negative. For years, and for many reasons, anti-Americanism has kept going up. Unfortunately, the number one cause is the lack of transparency in the degree and effect of US security and development aid. Equally troubling is the sheer denial of Pakistani civilian and military leaders of US support; rather they continue to stoke hatred toward US to score political points. Like leaders before them, current Pakistani democrats have convinced Washington that if they make the US-Pakistan partnership transparent they’ll lose power and the Islamists will take over. The Islamist bogeyman is just that – no Islamist party has ever received more than 10 popular votes since the creation of Pakistan (1947). Washington must push Islamabad to share more with the Pakistani street.
On the question of bin Laden, how much of a blow is this to al-Qaeda, and how do you think the organization will respond?
Symbolically it’s big. After 9/11, Osama bin Laden directed few attacks, but inspired thousands, especially young suicide bombers. His successors will try to consolidate what remains, but more importantly, al-Qaeda will remain relevant and expand through proxies, especially Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for Mumbai attacks of 2008. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda developed a very lucrative syndicate in nuclear-armed Pakistan exporting and importing trainers, advisers, explosive experts, propagandists, etc to groups like Haqqanis, Jaish-e-Mohmmad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and drug lords.
Any indication about who might step up to lead the group now?
It’s hard to say for sure, but I’ll be watching two guys very carefully: Adnan ul Shukerejumah and Matee ur Rehman. These young al-Qaeda commanders are very adept at propaganda, outreach and recruitment operations targeting young Muslims who are South Asian-origin US and European citizens. Al-Qaeda is cornered and needs a dramatic terrorists attack to remain relevant, and we may see it this year. Of course, I hope I’m wrong, and if there is an attempt, I hope we can stop it.
This article was originally published by The Diplomat.
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