The Pakistani state finds itself in a difficult place after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. The international community is blaming it of at least incompetence, if not duplicity. Its people are in a state of shock, not being able to comprehend the ease of US intrusion, and the fragility of its sovereignty.
The plain facts are indeed hard to explain. Osama was living not in a cave as generally assumed but in a city that has a fair military presence. It is baffling that no one, neither the intelligence agencies nor local police, had a clue about it.
The brazen American assault, with nary an apology for the violation of another state’s sovereignty, also raises many questions. Is Pakistan its ally or adversary? Why did the Americans not trust Pakistan with the information? And, why was the intrusion not detected? What kind of defence preparedness do we have if another country can come in so easily and do what it likes? Does this mean that our nuclear assets are also not safe?
At another level, the competence quotient in this government is also being seriously questioned. The president wrote an article in The Washington Post essentially endorsing the US raid. A day later, the Foreign Office comes out with a statement which, among other things, raises the sovereignty issue and sternly cautions the US not to test Pakistan’s resolve again. The contradiction between the two positions is obvious. Who is right? The only possible conclusion is that this is a government in complete disarray.
What is worse, the Pakistan case went by default when the Western leaders and media were challenging its credentials regarding the fight against Al-Qaeda. In the first 24-hour news cycle when any press interaction at a senior political level would have had a global audience, there was complete silence. A huge opportunity to present our version was missed.
And there is a case to be made. The American intelligence community, with all its resources, technical abilities, highly trained manpower and huge budgets, could not discover the 9/11 plot and prevent the subsequent attacks. This happens not because of negligence or incompetence, but because thousands of leads pour in every day and it is virtually impossible to follow each one.
The same holds true for other intelligence outfits, including Pakistan’s. They were not able to find Osama’s hideout, and that indeed is a failure. But the explanation is the same: too many leads, too few resources. But – and this is what someone in the government could have told a global audience – since 2001, Pakistan has arrested more members of Al-Qaeda hierarchy than all the Western agencies put together.
Since Pakistan is being bashed from all sides, it is worth repeating some details. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, 248 Arabs, presumably Al-Qaeda were arrested crossing the border. This was the largest cache of Al-Qaeda-related people apprehended ever.
It did not stop there. In the last decade important Al-Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Faraj Al-Libi, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Umar Patek, Ammar Al Baluchi, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailari were arrested. The list goes on and on. Some like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Al-Libi were top lieutenants to Osama bin Laden and allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks. The rest included Mohsin Matwalli Atwah, involved in the Kenya embassy bombing, who was killed in 2006 by Pakistani agencies with six other militants.
And yet the Western media and leaders say that Pakistan is playing a double game. The sad part is that our case has not been put before the world and now we find ourselves saddled with a serious credibility crisis. No one is willing to believe what we say. Our adversaries are having a field day dredging out the worst charges about us, and people like Salman Rushdie are having the temerity to demand that Pakistan should be declared a rogue state.
There is a domestic credibility gap too. People are concerned about their country’s security. Some are conjecturing that if the US can intrude so easily, what would stop the Indians? There is an explanation here too that has not come out in the domestic media. It may not completely put people’s fears to rest but there is certainly a case that a competent government would have been able to make.
Yes, the US was able to intrude with ease and evade our radars. There were both technical and tactical reasons for this. Technical, because superior equipment and high-tech gadgetry, combined with mountainous terrain, hid the intruders from the radars. Tactical, because military resources are deployed according to threat perception. There was little expectation of an attack from Afghanistan, so the radar network there was probably not extensive.
The situation is completely different when it comes to the Indian border or the strategic nuclear sites. They are heavily protected and the radar network is extensive. The possibility of an intruder coming in from that side without detection and a response is nonexistent. In other words, threat and capability go together. Americans sprang a surprise because there was no perception of threat from that side.
While all these explanations are valid and have gone by default because of a poor response from the Pakistani government, the sad fact is that damage has been done. Internationally now we are saddled with a serious credibility gap. This needs to change. Our objective has to be that while we cannot control every event happening here or abroad and, cannot rule out another terrorist popping up within the country, the Pakistani state is committed to the fight against militancy and international terrorism.
To make this commitment credible, mere words would not be enough. It is important to understand that for Pakistan the world is not the same after 1/5. A paradigm shift has come about and it needs to be understood. To be in a state of denial is not just an irritant but positively damaging for the country. There has to be a realisation that explanations having some resonance before would no longer hold validity. Our narrative has to change, backed by performance.
In particular, any impression of softness on militant groups because they are not a threat to the Pakistani state, or seen as assets for the future, would have little acceptance. In the new reality, if they are a threat to someone else, we have to play our part in ensuring that our soil is not used for attacks outside. It is not easy, because every option has its drawbacks, but a changed reality requires a serious rethink.
Our people need peace and prosperity, and that cannot come about by making the world our adversary. We need a cold analysis of our strengths and weaknesses and craft our policies accordingly. For too long we have sought to punch above our weight. This may no longer be possible.
Email: [email protected]