HONG KONG – Osama bin Laden is dead, but the troubling questions continue. It’s far too early to declare an end of the war against terror. Bin Laden was only the ugly face of a hydra-headed terror monster that has been spreading tentacles in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Europe and America. But governments should remember that it is a monster best defeated by brains, not brute force.
The most difficult questions concern Muslim, nuclear-armed Pakistan and its relationship with the United States, Afghanistan and the world. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani gave a robust speech in defense of Pakistan, its armed forces and intelligence services without answering the questions: How could the world’s most wanted terrorist have lived for six or seven years within a bullet shot of Pakistan’s military academy and the headquarters of its controversial spy agency without them knowing he was there?
How in a country supposedly on constant alert against terrorists could no one ask questions about who occupied the virtual fortress in Abbottabad? Was it complicity or incompetence?
Americans, including Leon Panetta, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, have asked whether Pakistan can be trusted. Pakistanis say the same about the U.S., with some questioning whether, especially in the absence of a photograph, bin Laden is really dead or whether he was in the raided compound. Former feared chief spymaster Gen. Hamid Gul claimed that the U.S. raid was a fake trying to bring closure, even though al-Qaida admitted that bin Laden had been killed
Commentators have raised questions about the future of Pakistan — will it become a failed state or hard-line Islamic or perhaps even collapse? There are few signs of an “Arab spring” of reformists rising in Pakistan as they have done through the Middle East and North Africa to offer another option instead of dictatorship or al-Qaida’s brand of Islam.
The complete collapse of Pakistan seems unthinkable not merely because of questions of who would pick up the pieces. This is not a rag-tag of tribes, though tribal influences are strong, and Pakistan’s abiding problem is that it was a rag-tag creation out of British India. It is a large chunk of territory strategically located between the Himalayas and the Arabian Sea with 180 million people, half of whom are under 20, and with a powerful military that possesses nuclear weapons.
Although its economy is in a mess, unemployment is rising and the state structures seem incapable of responding to the challenges of the economy or demography, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is growing, as if immune to economic and budgetary constraints.
It is possible to imagine parts of Pakistan being parceled off, with the North West Frontier added to Afghanistan to form Paktoonistan or Pakhtunland. If Baluchistan were included, that would give the new creation access to the sea, though Iran might claim Pakistan’s Baluch territory. Pakistani Punjab plus Sindh would certainly be a viable state and one that India might accept as not threatening to its own existence, except for the troubling nuclear weapons.
The wider problem is that Pakistan is intricately wrapped round a bigger great power equation involving not only Afghanistan, Iran and India but also the U.S., China and Russia. All the major players have dirty hands.
For decades, successive U.S. administrations gave billions of dollars of “aid” to Pakistan, much of which was wasted on building up the military to counterbalance Soviet economic and military assistance to India. The most cynical U.S. support came when “Dr. Realpolitik” Henry Kissinger was running foreign policy under President Richard Nixon and favored Pakistan’s military regime even when it was slaughtering East Bengalis who had voted in the fairest elections the country had seen for greater autonomy from Pakistan.
“Kill three million of them and the rest will fall into our hands,” declared Pakistan President Gen. Yahya Khan in launching his crackdown on East Bengal civilians who had the temerity to vote against rule from 1,600 km away in Islamabad. Ten million refugees fled to squalid camps in India. Kissinger wanted to keep Pakistan sweet so that he could use it as his secret launching point for talks to resume relations with Mao Zedong’s China.
Beijing has used its relationship with Pakistan equally cynically to ply regimes with weapons and nuclear know-how and has become Islamabad’s main sponsor now that Washington’s conscience has belatedly stirred about what has been gained from tens of millions of dollars of aid to Pakistan.
A report last month in the Wall Street Journal claimed that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani had suggested to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai that they cut America out and form an alliance with China to do a deal with the Taliban and give both favored access to the whole AfPak region. Fear of such a deal will surely keep Washington talking and sending vast sums of aid to Islamabad, even though some of that aid is being passed by the Pakistan military to the Taliban for use against Americans.
Then there is India. Brahma Chellaney wrote on this page in his May 7 article, “The heartland of bin Laden,” that “demilitarizing and deradicalizing Pakistan” is essential for winning the fight against international terror — easier said than done as the military is the main pan-Pakistan force. The statement ignores India’s failures in Kashmir, which have helped to radicalize generations of Muslims on both sides of the borders. India has to be part of a solution, but there seems to be no interest in the U.S., China or Pakistan in letting India play a role, and little imagination in India to suggest a constructive path for some of the poorest people in the world to live in peace.
The death of bin Laden is not a story with a happy ending. It would have a better chance if there were a United Nations or any nations with the guts to stand up to the U.S., China and Russia and urge policies based on right and rights, not might. Pakistanis might meanwhile reflect that 34,000 of them have paid the price in terror attacks since 9/11, 12 times as many as died in the Twin Towers.
Kevin Rafferty’s reporting on Asia started with the East Pakistan cyclone and elections in 1970.