NEW DELHI – The killing of Osama bin Laden by United States special forces in a helicopter assault on a sprawling luxury mansion near Islamabad recalls the capture of other al-Qaida leaders in Pakistani cities. Once again, we see that the real terrorist sanctuaries are located not along Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan and India, but in the Pakistani heartland.
This, in turn, underlines another fundamental reality — that the fight against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing and de-radicalizing Pakistan, including by rebalancing civil-military relations there and reining in the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Other terrorist leaders captured in Pakistan since 9/11 — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida’s third in command; Abu Zubeida, the network’s operations chief; Yasser Jazeeri; Abu Faraj Farj; and Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the coordinators of 9/11 — were also found living in cities across Pakistan.
If there is any surprise about bin Laden’s hideout, it is its location in a military town, Abbottadad, in the shadow of an army academy.
This only underscores the major protection that bin Laden must have received from elements of the Pakistani security establishment to help him elude the U.S. dragnet. The breakthrough in hunting him down came only after the U.S., even at the risk of rupturing its long-standing ties with the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), deployed a number of CIA operatives, Special Operations forces, and contractors deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge of the Pakistani military.
In recent years, with its senior operations men captured or killed and bin Laden holed up in Pakistan, the badly splintered al-Qaida had already lost the ability to mount a major international attack or openly challenge U.S. interests. With bin Laden’s death, al-Qaida is likely to wither away as an organization.
Yet its dangerous ideology is expected to live on and motivate state-sponsored non-state actors. It will be mainly such elements that will have the capacity to launch major transnational terrorist attacks, like the 2008 Mumbai strikes. Even in Afghanistan, the U.S. military’s main foe is not al-Qaida but a resurgent Taliban, which enjoys safe haven in Pakistan.
That is why the spotlight is likely to turn on the terrorist nexus within Pakistan and the role of, and relationship between, state and nonstate actors there. Significantly, as the CIA closed in on bin Laden, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullens, for the first time publicly linked the Pakistani military with some of the militants attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s homegrown Islamist militias operate openly, and the Pakistani army and intelligence remain loath to sever their ties with extremist and terrorist elements.
For the U.S., Pakistan poses a difficult challenge. Despite providing $20 billion to Pakistan in counterterrorism aid since 9/11, the U.S. has received grudging assistance, at best, and duplicitous cooperation, at worst. Today, amid a rising tide of anti-Americanism, U.S. policy on Pakistan is rapidly unraveling. Yet Pakistan, with one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, has become more dependent than ever on U.S. aid.
Even as Americans exult over bin Laden’s killing, the U.S. government must recognize that its failed policy on Pakistan has inadvertently made that country the world’s main terrorist sanctuary. Rather than helping to build robust civilian institutions there, the U.S. has pampered the jihadist-penetrated Pakistani military establishment, best illustrated by the fresh $3 billion military aid package earmarked for the next fiscal year.
After dictator Pervez Musharraf was driven out of office, the new Pakistani civilian government ordered the ISI to report to the interior ministry, but received no support from the U.S. for this effort to assert civilian control, allowing the army to quickly frustrate the effort.
After coming to office, U.S. President Barack Obama implemented a military surge in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, however, he implemented an aid surge, turning it into the largest recipient of U.S. aid, even though the Afghan Taliban leadership and al-Qaida remnants remained ensconced in the country. This only deepened U.S. involvement in the wrong war and emboldened Pakistan to fatten the Afghan Taliban, even as sustained U.S. attacks continued to severely weaken al-Qaida.
Make no mistake: the scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates more from the country’s generals than from the bead-rubbing mullahs. It is the self-styled secular generals who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jalaluddin Haqqani militia, and other groups. Yet, by passing the blame for their terrorist-proxy policy to their mullah puppets, the generals have made the U.S. believe that the key is to contain the religious fringe, not the puppeteers.
In fact, Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule, but under two military dictators — one who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and another who took his country to the very edge of the precipice.
Without reform of the Pakistani army and ISI, there can be no end to transnational terrorism — and no genuine nation-building in Pakistan. How can Pakistan be a “normal” state if its army and intelligence agency remain outside civilian oversight and decisive power remains with military generals?
With bin Laden dead, the only way that al-Qaida can reconstitute itself is if the Pakistani military succeeds in reinstalling a proxy regime in Afghanistan.
Until the Pakistani military’s viselike grip on power is broken and the ISI cut down to size, Pakistan is likely to remain Ground Zero for the terrorist threat that the world confronts.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” and the forthcoming “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield.” © 2011 Project Syndicate