A wave of scepticism and anger in Pakistan has greeted the clandestine raid by US naval commandoes into the residence of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad, near Islamabad, on May 1-2, which resulted in his death. The scepticism has been over the claims made by both the US and Pakistan regarding the operation itself. Large sections of the Pakistani civil society believe that a chopper-borne hit-and-run raid of this nature could not have been carried out by the US Special Forces without the acquiescence, if not the covert collaboration, of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment.
Barring the technical breakdown of a chopper that resulted in its being blown up, the entire operation — lasting about two hours, most of which was spent by the US raiding team either in the Pakistani air space or territory — was carried out with clock-like precision. It would be very difficult to attribute the total absence of any engagement between the US raiding party and the Pakistani security forces only to the remarkable capabilities of the US forces for a clandestine operation of this nature.
There ought to have been a Pakistani role — even if that role was only one of pre-determined inaction till the Americans had killed bin Laden and left — which ensured the success of the operation with a remarkable absence of engagement in the air or on the ground and a total lack of any collateral damage. That is what many not only in Pakistan but also outside believe and this belief will remain strong whatever be the US claims and explanations.
There have been outbursts of public anger, but surprisingly not of rage. The first Friday prayers after the raid on May 6 surprisingly passed off without any serious incident of violence. The anger has been over the US violation of Pakistani sovereignty and over the suspected Pakistani collaboration with the US for killing a pious Muslim who is seen by many in the Islamic world not as a dreaded terrorist but as a saviour and defender of Islam.
It would be difficult to assess for how long this scepticism and anger would last, but so long as it does, Pakistan would remain a vulnerable State — even more than in the past. Its internal security situation could further deteriorate due to a possible rise in acts of suicide terrorism directed against soft as well as hard targets. At a time when the anger caused by the Pakistani commando raid into the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007 was showing signs of subsiding, there is a danger of it being re-kindled by the US operation in Abbottabad.
Pakistan has been passing through a state of unstable equilibrium for some years now. This equilibrium could become even more unstable in the weeks and months to come as a consequence of the Abbottabad raid. How to prevent this unstable equilibrium from worsening further? That will be an important objective of the US policy towards Pakistan.
Pakistan’s strategic importance for the US will not diminish despite the elimination of bin Laden. Pakistani cooperation had served US interests well in the past — whether it was in relation to the Cold War or the US rapprochement with China. It could serve US interests in the Islamic world equally well in the future. There cannot be a stable Afghanistan without a stable Pakistan and vice versa. The US interest in ensuring the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will remain as strong as ever. Pakistan will continue to be a key State in the fight against Islamic extremism and jihadi terrorism.
It would be a miscalculation to think that US suspicion and anger over possible local support — official or unofficial or both — to bin Laden in Pakistan could result in major changes in the US policy in the subcontinent to the detriment of Pakistan and benefit of India. While stepping up pressure on Pakistan for more sincerity and effectiveness in dealing with jihadi terrorism, the US will eschew any policies or actions which could prove detrimental to its interests in Pakistan.
Instead of hoping to be able to drive a wedge between the US and Pakistan by exploiting the cloud over the sanctuary enjoyed by bin Laden, India should examine how the bin Laden incident could be used as one more argument to convince Pakistan of the need to give up the path of terrorism. These are traumatising moments for Pakistan and its people. We should avoid any signs of glee. That would be unwise.
The problems faced by us in our relations with Pakistan due to its use of terrorism will continue. We should seek a solution to this problem through our own genius and in our own way through an appropriate mix of policy incentives and disincentives. We need a stand-alone policy which will not depend on the US policy towards Pakistan for its success.
B Raman is a former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.