We often refer to it as an “alliance” – but most of the time that word isn’t really a good description of the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. Still, there were plenty of good reasons to expect that the killing of Osama bin Laden – the most notorious leader of the jihadi terrorist movement that has caused so much death and anguish in both countries – might close that rift. Instead it has dramatized the extent to which Americans and Pakistanis inhabit alternate worlds.
For Americans, the end of bin Laden is an enormous victory, a triumph, a welcome relief after nearly ten years of unrequited desire for payback.
The word that Pakistanis often use to describe the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound is biizati, Urdu for “insult,” “humiliation,” or “dishonor.” When they resort to English the word “fiasco” seems to come up a lot.
In America, citizens from all walks of life and all across the political spectrum are praising Obama for his competent handling of the operation. More broadly, Operation Neptune Spear (as U.S. officials refer to the raid) offers graphic proof of the continued power of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment.
In Pakistan, the whole episode is turning into an epic embarrassment for the military and the intelligence services, which are now exposed, at minimum, as incompetent and ineffective – or, in the worst case scenario, as protectors of bin Laden. And the civilian government in Islamabad is enduring a storm of criticism from across the board.
Make no mistake: The general sense of Pakistani consternation should not be interpreted as some form of regret about OBL's death. As our own Daud Khattak argues in a must-read commentary, Pakistanis have been noticeably reluctant to take to the streets to protest the killing. There has been little outright praise for the Al-Qaeda leader.
Or listen to Salman Hassan Mohammad, who lives a mile away from the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad: “We are all very happy he is dead. End of story. But we are in disbelief that this happened in Pakistan and in Abbottabad, which is such a peaceful place.”
The shock has much to do with the revelation that bin Laden was living just a few hundred meters away from the country’s leading military academy, in a city so thick with soldiers that residents are constantly being stopped and asked to show their national identity cards.
Imran Khan, the ex-cricketer who now runs his own political party, put it succinctly in an interview with Pakistan’s Geo TV: “This is the biggest disaster for Pakistan.” He accused the Pakistani army of failing to act against bin Laden before the Americans did. “Why did the Pakistani army not act when they had the intelligence? No one believes the government, unfortunately.”
The other source of humiliation derives from the ease with which the U.S. special forces who staged the raid were able to penetrate Pakistan’s air defenses in an area just forty miles away from the national capital of Islamabad without being detected. That has raised fears about the government’s ability to protect the country against attack from arch-rival India. “We are all angry,” says ex-Air Force cadet Inayat Zeb. “An American chopper penetrated this deep into our country?” He should know. He’s an Abbottabad resident who lives so close to the bin Laden compound that he was awakened by the raid.
It is a sentiment that is already leading to political consequences. Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement political party, called on the government and military to “apologize” to the nation for their obvious failure. “Every Pakistani wants to know how the U.S. troops crossed over into a sovereign and independent Pakistan without permission. How was it possible that a raid was conducted well inside Pakistani territory? How was it possible that the raiders managed to leave unhurt and undetected? How come the government and intelligence agencies remained in the dark about all this?”
The Pakistanis certainly have reason to be nervous. If the U.S. could stage a raid on this scale without a single casualty, what does that say about the security of Pakistan’s vaunted nuclear arsenal in the event of war with India? The Pakistani Army, evidently concerned about countering such fears, chose to address precisely that question when, after long hesitation, it finally issued a statement about the raid today:
As regards the possibility of similar hostile action against our strategic assets, the Forum reaffirmed that, unlike an undefended civilian compound, our strategic assets are well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place.
The Forum [meeting of senior Pakistani generals], taking serious note of the assertions made by Indian military leadership about conducting similar operations, made it very clear that any misadventure of this kind will be responded to very strongly. There should be no doubt about it.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in turn, while explicitly acknowledging an “intelligence failure” on the government’s part, has otherwise done his best to avoid the whole subject.
In the U.S., Operation Neptune Spear has probably strengthened the Obama Administration and made thepresident’s re-election more likely. In Pakistan, it has dented the prestige of the military, one of the country’s key unifying institutions, and undermined the legitimacy of the elected government.
Yet there is one area, though, where American and Pakistani views converge. Americans retain vivid memories of the 9/11 attacks and are acutely conscious of the huge sacrifices of blood and treasure that the U.S. has endured since. According to opinion polls taken since bin Laden’s death, an overwhelming majority of Americans fear that Al-Qaeda is almost certain to retaliate. Pakistanis have suffered tens of thousands of casualties from jihadi terrorists over the years, so this is an anxiety that they share. “Someone else will take over [from bin Laden],” says Fizza Aslam, a radio disc jockey in Lahore. “And now he will step up, and just to prove his strength he'll kill more of us.”
Yes. It's possible. And that would not be good.
- Christian Caryl and Aisha Chowdhry