The killing of Osama bin Laden by US Special Forces has tipped US-Pakistan relations into their deepest pit since 9/11. They have not yet reached rupture: both countries are aware of the consequences that would have for their respective wars. And there are opportunities in the Al Qaeda leader’s abrupt demise. But both Islamabad and Washington will have to break from failed policies. Currently the countries seem bent only on repeating them. Barack Obama’s gentle call for a government investigation into how the world’s number-one fugitive could be hiding in plain sight in a military cantonment deep in Pakistan has been amplified by furious demands from Congress that all aid be cut.
Pakistan is unapologetic. Admitting some “shortcomings,” the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, warned that any similar unauthorized strike inside Pakistan would mean a “review” of all military and intelligence cooperation with the United States. He means it. The Pakistani military has reportedly revealed the identity of the CIA station chief in Islamabad. In the toxic anti-Americanism now flowing through Pakistan, that could be a death sentence. Public outrage arises not only from the violation of sovereignty but from a suspicion that the army’s denunciations are a smoke screen for a secret deal that permits US Special Forces to kill Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan unmolested.
American anger is also understandable. How could bin Laden live for five years undetected in a leafy suburb under the noses of an army that has received some $20 billion in US aid primarily to achieve his death or capture? The answer is that he couldn’t without the connivance of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or at least elements of it. That view is near universally held not only in Washington but also in Pakistan, including by former ISI chiefs.
The ISI was always a reluctant convert to the “war on terror.” If for Washington the enemy was bin Laden and the pro-Pakistan Taliban regime in Kabul that had harbored him, for Islamabad it remained India, in its eyes massively strengthened after 9/11 by the US tilt toward Delhi as the dominant power in the region and by a pro-India (and anti-Pakistan) government in Kabul. The upshot was a “double” policy, whereby Islamabad went after certain insurgent groups but not others. The Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta and the Haqqani network in the tribal areas were routinely described as “assets” and “our people” by ISI officers. They were backed as a way to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan and as a hedge against India’s widening influence there.
Most commentators believed the ISI saw Al Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates as enemies, especially after the very real carnage inflicted on the army in their violent insurgencies against the state. Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad suggests otherwise. One view is that he was being held by the ISI as leverage to bring the more ferocious Pakistani insurgents under control. Others say he was being protected by the ISI as simply a way to ensure endless American cash. There is a third theory. Many military and ISI leaders are convinced that the ultimate aim of the United States and India is to strip Pakistan of its nuclear arsenal, and some officers saw the Abbottabad raid as a dry run. Was the possible sheltering of bin Laden a bizarre deterrence against this? So opaque is the ISI as an institution that all these theories are plausible.