A “kill” highlights flawed policies

After Osama: Triumph for one, but lessons for all

When the dust settles, it is likely to be business as usual: Indians impotent as ever, Pakistanis playing both ally and enemy, and the US doling out further multibillion-dollar awards to Pakistan

Brahma Chellaney
Mint, May 4, 2011
Conducted without the cooperation or even advance knowledge of Pakistan, the US helicopter assault that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout beside a Pakistani military academy has exposed that country’s Janus-faced policy — a supposed ally on counterterrorism that in reality acts as an ally of transnational terrorists, harbouring them in its bosom covertly. The new spotlight on Islamabad’s duplicitous role raises uncomfortable questions for US policy, including about the billions of dollars in annual aid still being lavished on Pakistan. Yet the US is unlikely to heed the renewed call, among others, of Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s intelligence director until last summer, to “wake up to the fact that Pakistan is a hostile state exporting terror”.

In a potential lesson for India, which has stoically put up with Pakistan-orchestrated acts of cross-border terrorism for years without retaliating even once, the US assault team managed to breach Pakistani defences by slipping deep inside Pakistan, with President Barack Obama informing his Pakistani counterpart about the successful operation only after the mission crew safely crossed back into Afghan airspace with Osama’s body.

In fact, the breakthrough came only after the US, even at the risk of rupturing its longstanding ties with the Pakistani army and ISI, deployed a number of CIA operatives, Special Operations forces and contractors deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge of the Pakistani military. Just last month, Pakistan’s main power brokers, generals Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, were stridently demanding the removal of all “undeclared” CIA operatives and contractors. But the prized “kill” has only reinforced the need for independent US intelligence operations in the Pakistani heartland, where the real terrorist sanctuaries are located, not on Pakistan’s borders.

In different ways, Osama in death has paradoxically exposed Pakistani, US and Indian policies. After all, a raid — even if spectacularly triumphant for one side, mortifying for another, and welcomed by the third party — cannot cover up or atone for flawed policies.

Take India: With the Hafiz Saeeds and Dawood Ibrahims in Pakistan mocking this country, the raid inadvertently shows up the naivety of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s basic assumptions about why refraining from exerting pressure and relying merely on engagement is the best way to persuade Pakistan to stop sponsoring terror.

Whereas Obama proudly declared that the US had “kept its commitment to see that justice is done”, India believes in delivering not justice but dossiers. That is why India’s reaction to 26/11 was to avoid taking the smallest of small steps — such as the recall of its own high commissioner from Islamabad — as just a token expression of outrage over Pakistan’s role as the staging ground for those daring terrorist attacks.

As for Pakistan, it can no longer be regarded as a reliable US ally. But no one has been more exposed than the two generals there who were making stroppy demands of the US until recently. Although the superannuated Kayani and Pasha have succeeded in staying on in office, their credibility at home and abroad is set to take a beating.

More important, the raid has exposed US policy, underlining a failed strategy that has unintentionally turned Pakistan into Ground Zero for global terrorism.

Obama, after taking office, implemented a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to Pakistan, turning the latter into the largest recipient of US aid, although the Afghan Taliban leadership and Al Qaeda remnants remained ensconced in Pakistan. That only deepened US involvement in the wrong war and emboldened Pakistan to fatten the Afghan Taliban even as US drone strikes in Waziristan continued to severely weaken Al Qaeda. Rather than help build robust civilian institutions in Pakistan, Washington has continued to pamper the jihadist-penetrated Pakistani military establishment, best illustrated by the fresh $3 billion military aid package earmarked for next fiscal.

Logically, there must now be a redefinition of the US-Pakistan relationship. After all, the US military’s main foe in Afghanistan is not the badly fragmented and incapacitated Al Qaeda, but a resurgent Taliban enjoying safe havens in Pakistan, which has brazenly egged on the Afghan president to dump the Americans for Chinese support. Yet Obama’s narrowing of the Afghan war goals has ironically made the US more dependent on Pakistan. By moving away from the Bush-era counterinsurgency strategy towards limited objectives centred on political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, Obama now needs Pakistan’s Scotch whisky-sipping but jihadist-rearing military generals to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

That is why when the dust settles, it is likely to be business as usual: Indians impotent as ever, Pakistanis playing both an ally and an enemy, and Americans doling out further multibillion-dollar awards to Islamabad. With Osama’s death boosting his flagging political fortunes, Obama no longer looks like a one-termer, but rather a president who will last to shape the endgame in Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
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