LONDON – U.S. President Barack Obama was justified in ordering the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaida group of jihadists and terrorists, who have caused such widespread suffering and mayhem not only in Western countries but also in Muslim states. But his death does not necessarily make the world any safer and raises as many problems as it solves.
The most serious problem is instability in Pakistan, which has almost certainly been heightened by the American incursion into the heart of a Pakistan city. The Americans having experienced Pakistani duplicity over Afghanistan were surely justified in concealing their plans for a raid on bin Laden’s hide-out. He was living in a city not far from the Pakistani military academy. It has to be presumed that either the authorities had connived at bin Laden’s presence or that the Pakistani intelligence were appallingly incompetent and were unaware of his presence in their midst.
In the military cantonment of Abbottabad the building of this fortified complex must surely have aroused suspicions. Whatever the truth, the Pakistani intelligence services should be deeply ashamed. It is not surprising that they and Pakistani generals and politicians are said to be furious with the Americans because they have been caught out.
There must be a strong temptation among American leaders to stop aid to Pakistan, but it would be dangerous to all our interests if the Americans succumbed to this temptation. The North-West Frontier of Pakistan is a wild and primitive region and provides sanctuary for the Taliban operating in Afghanistan. There are also separate Taliban groups which threaten Pakistan and have caused many bloody incidents in Pakistan. The Pakistani forces have suffered many casualties in trying to deal with this internal threat.
Pakistan is unfortunately a nuclear power and has been responsible in the past for leakage of nuclear warfare information to Iran and probably North Korea. It also confronts India in Kashmir. Whether we like it or not, we simply cannot afford to dump Pakistan and must try to mend fences with the regime. Pakistan is not a failed state like Somalia and the democratic elements that exist in Pakistan need help and encouragement.
It won’t be easy for the Americans to re-establish good relations particularly at a time when allied forces in Afghanistan are threatened from hide-outs within Pakistan. The American military is unlikely to be deterred from attacks on such havens by the likelihood that it will further outrage the Pakistani authorities. The Pakistanis have threatened that further incursions such as that to Abbottabad will be forcibly dealt with.
If press reports are to be believed, the Americans managed to disrupt Pakistani radar on the night of the raid, but even so, Pakistani fighters were scrambled and there might have been fighting between American and Pakistan forces if the raid had taken longer to complete.
Pakistan would lose significant amounts of U.S. aid if Pakistan were so foolish as to challenge the Americans, but angry and ashamed as they are, the Pakistanis just might “cut off their nose to spite their face.” All Western countries must try hard to cool the present Pakistani anger.
Inevitably there has been speculation about the implications of the death of bin Laden for the war in Afghanistan. It is not at all clear how much the Afghan Taliban were influenced by al-Qaida. Their main aim has been to rid Afghanistan of foreign forces and impose their intolerant form of Islamic government. How far does the fight against the Afghan Taliban help in defeating international terrorism?
The recent prison break of over 500 Taliban fighters, almost certainly with the connivance of some Afghan officials, suggests that it may be a long time before Afghanistan is peaceful. Pressure to withdraw NATO forces is likely to increase as a result of the death of bin Laden.
It has rightly been pointed out in Europe that the elimination of bin Laden should not draw attention away from the stirrings of democratic forces in the Middle East. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have not yet led to full democracy in these countries. Repression in Syria and Bahrain has got worse and there have been many killed and injured. There is sadly little that we can do to help the Syrians. In Libya Moammar Gadhafi continues to hold out and the country suffers.
The agreement between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories may in the long run make the achievement of a settlement of the Palestinian problems more rather than less likely as the Israeli prime minister has provocatively argued. But the Hamas leader who deplored the elimination of bin Laden harmed his cause.
There has been much discussion about the justification of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Why was he not captured alive instead of being shot when it seems that he was not armed? Those taking part in the raid had to make split-second decisions. We do not know all the facts or what it must have been like to be taking part in the raid.
If bin Laden had been captured alive it is difficult to see how he could have had a fair trial. The dangers and costs involved would have been huge. It is probably better to refer to bin Laden’s death as a necessary casualty in war rather than as an execution which implies a judicial process which could not take place. American relief at his elimination is entirely understandable and justified, but triumphalism and euphoria are unwise.
Islamic extremism and intolerance have not been eliminated. There will inevitably be some followers of bin Laden intent on revenging his death.
Others will see this as a spur to jihad and as a call to martyrdom. We need to concentrate on combating religious intolerance and the absurd belief that jihad martyrs are destined for paradise.
Hugh Cortazzi, a career British diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
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