© picture-alliance / dpa
Anti-US demonstration in Multan, Pakistan, in May
The Bin Laden killing shocked the entire nation of Pakistan, which is bearing the brunt of being a front line state of the US-led “war on terror” in neighbouring Afghanistan. Before the event, it would have been considered impossible that the world’s most wanted fugitive was hiding in Abbottabad, a town with a strong military presence just 61 kilometres north of Islamabad, the capital city.
According to information released by the US authorities, Bin Laden lived there in a fort-like compound for over five years. His home was close to the Pakistan Military Academy, where the nation’s army officers are trained.
Leon Panetta, the head of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who will soon become defence secretary, says that Pakistan’s government was not informed ahead of the raid that American soldiers conducted in the early hours of 2 May. He says the USA kept Islamabad in the dark in order to prevent any leak that might have informed the target well before the action.
Pakistan has been a US ally for decades. In cold-war times, the USA supported Pakistan because non-aligned India was considered any ally of the Soviet Union. Later Washington helped to create Islamist militancy to defeat the Red Army in Pakistan’s neighbouring country Afghanistan. Today, the USA is cooperating with Pakistan to eliminate Islamist militancy in that very country. Pakistan depends on US aid for its military as well as various social programmes.
Nonetheless, the bilateral relations between the two countries suffer from suspicion. There was a serious lack of trust before Bin Laden was killed, and that is even more so now.
Observers in United States are currently raising some hard, but legitimate questions about the presence of Bin Laden in one of Pakistan’s major cantonment areas. Who knew he was there? Who supported him? What role did Pakistan’s secret services and military play? Some US congressmen have even called for terminating $ 1.5 billion aid, saying that Pakistan “harboured” Bin Laden and some of his associates.
In Pakistan, people are asking tough questions too. It feels like an insult that foreign troops should fly in by helicopter, land in one of the country’s most sensitive places, conduct a military operation and leave the venue calmly. It is puzzling, moreover, that Pakistani security forces in Abbottabad should have listened to a gun shots ring out in the middle of the night for almost an hour without even trying to intervene. Were they really as ignorant of what was going on as the authorities in Washington and Islamabad claim they were?
Debate on the matter is hot in Pakistan. The authorities are trying to re-assert that they are in control and that they have no secret deals with the USA. For the first time in 66 years of independent Pakistan’s history, the military leadership appeared in parliament to elaborate on the issue. Legislators then passed a resolution, condemning the covert US operation and warning that, should there be further military intrusions, Pakistan would cut the supply lines to US troops in Afghanistan.
It is obvious, however, that Pakistani authorities have tolerated strikes by US drones, unmanned US aircraft, in the areas near the border to Afghanistan, and that they are likely to do so in future too. Parliament’s expression of faith in the government, the military and the secret services, moreover, does not explain why Bin Laden could hide in Abbottabad.
His death will not usher in the end of the US-Pakistan alliance. This marriage of convenience may be maddening, but it is not about to break up. Both governments know they need one another. Pakistan depends on military gadgets from United States to compete with its rival India. A wink from USA, moreover, would cast doubt on Pakistan’s financial viability in the international markets. The USA, on the other hand, needs this nuclear-armed partner to contain militancy and extremists forces – in the country itself and in its region.
Lack of trust, obviously, makes this crucial alliance awkward. The events in early May have made it even more so.