Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Osama bin Laden: What Next for Pakistan

Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this week, a result inevitably determined and irrevocably scheduled on 9/11, although there are many who insist he was on USA's radar well before the destruction of the iconic towers; he may well have been, but on that September morning, his fate was ensured.  That he was killed in Pakistan, in the heart of the country's military establishment, may surprise the naive but seems equally inevitable to someone who not only spent a few years growing up in General Zia's Islamabad but has followed that country closely in the past two decades.

I do not want to go over again over the numerous bits of rumour, political spin and misinformation about the operation that resulted bin Laden's death. Instead, I want to reflect on some of the country's past and perhaps try to glimpse a bit of its immediate future. And for that I go back to a blistering hot summer day in 1980 when we arrived in that country.

For a family used to the rough living of forward camps in India's north-east (one of our homes was a bamboo hut with dirt floors), Islamabad seemed gleamingly modern: wide avenues that seemed to echo Lutyen's Delhi with more than a dash of scenes from American movies.  Rawalpindi and Lahore, however, were similar to crowded, untidy towns from our own side of the border, except that people were either exaggeratedly friendly (something that discomfited me) or erupted into mysterious aggression.  Peshawar was chaotic but friendly and once past the Jamrud Fort - where national government writ did not apply - we felt as safe amongst the Pathan warlords as we would in Indian territory.

Strangely, for a country with two of its neighbours engaged in bloody wars (Afghanistan and Iran) through out the 1980s, with seemingly unending train of refugees pouring into its own impoverished villages and towns, Pakistan seemed single-mindedly focussed on one issue: India. 

It took a long time for me to understand that India posed an existential threat to Pakistan in a way that war on its other borders could not: cleaved from India, the country desperately needed a national  identity that would not only distinguish it clearly from its eastern neighbour but also confirm a sense of self that would not need no reference to India. Unlike most Indians who feel that our shared features are grounds for friendly relations, I learned - thanks to years in Pakistani schools - that those very commonalities threaten the ongoing national project of Pakistani self-hood. 

To ensure this distinct identity, General Zia had, not long before, embarked on a national "Islamisation" programme. The extent and impact of this decades-long national programme is perhaps little understood: with ample Saudi financial support, the programme was meant to steadily construct an "Islamic" national identity, replacing the various streams of the faith and ancient local cultural traditions with the austere Wahhabi version imported from the Gulf.  Over time (and as 30 years of the programme bear fruit now), army and other government institutions were to be populated by these new "true Muslims," with recruitment, promotions, assignments all geared to ensure the gradual cleansing of the old guard who were seen as weak and non-Islamic (and under the new definition, therefore, un-Pakistani enough). 

At the same time, a vast change was brought to the educational curriculum: Pakistan's history was rewritten to highlight its Islamic identity and cleanse it of its Hindu, Buddhist, Jain past. We found a stark example of this at the Takshashila monastery ruins where the government guide insisted that the monks' living quarters were prison cells and the abbotts' rooms - slightly larger than the rest - were the torture and execution chambers. You see, there was no room for Buddhist glory in Zia's newly Islamising nation! None of us who had heard that guide on that day in 1983 were surprised by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001: Zia's tree was bearing fruit!

Even Urdu - that wondrously hybrid linguistic miracle - suffered the same fate as it was steadily "purified" and words from Sanskrit, Prakrit and other Indic languages were replaced with Arab ones. 

What does all this have to do with Osama bin Laden, you may well ask? Well, this was also the time when Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was increasingly empowered (it had existed since 1948) and with the long-running campaign in Afghanistan - with US support in terms of training and weaponry and Saudi funds - grew in stature. Over time, it also became increasingly strident and a powerful cell within the army, and began to establish itself as a separate centre of power, with vast funds and resources but also able to call on an unofficial cadre of ideologically driven footsoldiers from the jihadist groups it supported, funded, trained and ran. By early 1990s, the ISI was often acting against the wishes and without the knowledge of the main army brass.  At this time, army and civilian governments were often all too happy to claim ISI's successes as their own, even as some expressed reservations in private (Benazir Bhutto was one of these). It is also important to note that over time and given its involvement in Afghanistan, the ISI also became far more imbued with fundamentalist ideology than many other parts of the Pakistan state and populace. 

However, to believe that the army is some how "liberal" is a mistake: three decades of Zia's "Islamisation" have ensured that it also fully partakes of the fundamentalist ideology. There is, however, a basic difference: Pakistan's army also has impressive economic assets and political power; it also is cognizant of the need for working with the rest of the government - even the much-derided politicians - and is circumspect about maintaining its status quo.  This leads the Pakistan army to often make what may seem like "compromises" in the national and international arena, although it must be noted that the institution has been very effective in ensuring that civilians and politicians take the fall for these necessary "compromises." One notable exception to this has been Gen. Musharraf who was eased out with a gentleness that Pakistan's army can only extend to  its own.

With this backdrop in mind, it is worth looking back at the past ten years (although the Kargil fiasco is also a factor in these internal power games). Pakistan's army and civilian government have attempted to walk a very fine line: unable to check the ISI-jihadi bloc, it has attempted to maintain a facade of "alliance" with US and others in the post-9/11 "war on terror," while trying to curtail some of ISI's influence. Unfortunately, ISI (and some parts of the larger army) have shown little interest in the longer term, economic and political interests of the nation. Instead, still convinced that it - not geopolitics - defeated Soviet Union with the fabled "death-of-a-thousand-cuts," it believes it can continue unchecked: the various attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai ones as well as its continued machinations in Afghanistan and the country's own tribal areas, are an evidence of its convictions.

Sadly, Pakistan's policies of the past thirty years are ripping it apart today: army with its collaborating wing of civilian polity is increasingly facing a network of terrorist groups backed, funded, armed and often manned by direct and indirect members of the ISI.  This is one answer to the mystery of who the US informed (and didn't inform) and who all in Pakistan government establishment knew about bin Laden's whereabouts!  Given the situation in the country, it is likely that various parts of Pakistan's army, ISI and other goverment agencies knew different bits of information and received varying briefings. Unfortunately for Pakistan (also ultimately for bin Laden), although fortunately for the US, these various Pakistani factions are acting against each other!  

So what happens now? Terror attack warnings have already gone out across the world. There is little doubt that various groups ideologically linked to Al-Qaida will attempt to avenge his death. There is also the issue of succession to bin Laden, although he was - at time of his death - more of a symbol than a major leader of any jihadist terrorist group. However, the top spot is now available to whole array of successors and succession wars will mean that each heir-apparent will attempt to stake his claim by staging competitively spectacular attacks. 

Another aspect to consider is the timing of the operation: by most reliable accounts suggest that US had suspicions about bin Laden's location at least as far back as 2008. It also appears that they knew "almost certainly" by middle 2010 that he was at Abbottabad. It is worth keeping in mind that operations of this kind require a few months of planning, which means they would only ready by the first quarter of 2011. 

However, killing bin Laden would have yielded greater electoral benefit for Barack Obama later in the year, once the campaign had begun to heat up.  So why now? Did US fear that bin Laden would be tipped off by one side in Pakistan's internecine rivalry and escape again? But then given that last three presidents have failed, that would hardly have been a major disaster. Or did the US feel it was being rendered irrelevant to the Middle East by the events of the Arab Spring and killing bin Laden would symbolically help them assert a military, if not political, power that most of the world believes is waning? No doubt there shall be more answers in the next few weeks as more information emerges. 

However, here are my some of my predictions:  in the next eighteen months, we shall see increased violence within Pakistan as the army-civilian establishment goes up against the ISI-jihadi alliance.  The former will be attempting to salvage what is possible of the national cause while the latter will not only be driven by revenge but an increasing threat to their very survival (The Arab Spring also impacts financing and support of Islamist groups by regimes who are increasingly fighting fires on their own home-fronts).  I do not envy the average Pakistani citizen who will be caught in the cross-fire of this "informal" warfare. 


  1. willtobelieve5/04/2011 10:22 pm

    You mention Afghanistan and I think that has a lot to do with the timing of the operation.

    The boost in the polls is always going to be temporary. It probably assures Obama's reelection, however, for the simple reason that it takes away the biggest stick used to beat him - being 'soft' on national defence.

    The more pressing issue for him I think is Afghanistan. The American psyche is plagued by the disaster that was Vietnam and the similarities are eerie for them. Both conflicts were entered into with no consideration of an exit strategy let alone a plan for how to fight an unconventional conflict. In both conflicts there was talk of 'Vietnamisation' and 'Aghanisation'; namely keeping boots on the ground, training up the national army and gradually withdrawing US troops when that army is ready to take over. Despite US penchant for intervention they are painfully aware of losing a war of attrition and getting bogged down.

    It seems odd to say Vietnam still plays a role in US foreign policy today. But I genuinely believe that its shadow does. President Johnson inherited it off JFK and Nixon in turn inherited it off of him. President Obama may not have started the war in afghanistan but he was elected, in part, on his pledge to end it along with Iraq.

    In order to start withdrawing troops after 'the surge' Obama had to neutralise the original reason for being in Afghanistan, which wasn't the Taliban but the threat posed by al-Qaeda training camps. With OBL dead he can justify gradual troop reduction to the US public. He had to start the ball rolling now because if he did it later, during either the US primaries or the presidential campaign, he would be accused of trying to make political advantage out of the US armed forces.

    Having set the ball in motion now it means Obama is free to campaign for reelection, not just on the claim to be strong on defence and the president who 'got' OBL, but also as the man who kept his election pledge to bring US troops home.

    Obama, as candidate for reelection, is going to position himself as a unique, mythical and almost paradoxical being - as the man of peace AND war.

  2. Agree in part with your points but dont think Afghanistan withdrawal will begin so soon although it may well have been included in the calculations. To use OBL's killing as the pretext for withdrawal from Afghanistan presupposes that it wont be a long hot summer - the snow is just melting and this is tends to the the traditional time of the year to launch military offensives for various Afghan groups.
    Greatest irony to have the Nobel peace laureate go in for the man of peace and war. :-)

  3. I very accurate analysis.One can only pity the poor Pakistani civilians who are sandwiched between the Army/ISI and the Land lord politicians.

  4. Thanks dad. Glad you agree with the analysis. Learned how to do it from you :-D