Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Rambling Thoughts on Bin Laden and Pakistan
Well, after nearly ten years the mastermind of 9/11 Usama Bin Laden was finally killed by a Navy Seals team during a raid on a compound in Pakistan. This is of course a great victory for the US and the war on terrorism. Yet I think that its importance is probably more symbolic than anything else. Yes, Bin Laden was the official head of Al Qaeda but like most terrorist groups Al Qaeda lacks a rigid hierarchial structure being largely a collection of loose affiliations and so unfortunately it will probably be able to function just fine without Bin Laden. Nonetheless, on balance I think the world is much safer and better off without him.
However, what's of more interest to me about the situation is the role of Pakistan in all of this. Now it strains credulity to think that Pakistan had no knowledge that Bin Laden was hiding in their country especially when it turned out to be a city crawling with Pakistani Army regulars and more importantly the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. Of course when you consider the role Islamabad has played during the war in Afghanistan this isn't too terribly surprising. Since the beginning of the war on terrorism Pakistan has made Bismark proud by playing both sides off one another, namely, on the one hand aiding the US by providing significant overflight of their territory, capturing some insurgents, and providing intel on others but on the other hand covertly aiding some of the insurgents and providing them a safe haven just inside their borders. (The unit that I was with in Afghanistan saw this up close when they were in the east where they would constantly be shot but could never pursue because the insurgents would ease right back into Pakistan. Also Pakistan's Janus face role has been known since the start of the war which is why the wikileaks fiasco didn't really reveal anything that wasn't already known about US-Pakistani relations before.)
On the surface this duplicitous action makes no sense: wouldn't Pakistan benefit from a strong, stable Afghanistan? Well, that's actually precisely what Pakistan does not want. To understand why you have to look at Pakistan's own security interests and concerns. One of these is the fact that Pakistan has a large Islamic fundamentalist demographic in its country that it wishes to keep subdued but the one that determines the direction of just about all of Pakistan's national security interests is centered on Islamabad's obsession with its mortal enemy India. Ever since the violent partition of British India in 1947 resulted in the formation of these states they have fought numerous military conflicts mostly over the region of Kashmir, even coming close to nuclear war a couple of times. One war (1971) even led to the formation of a new state, Bangladesh. (go here for more).
And the way that Afghanistan figures into the equation is because during the period between WWII and the Soviet invasion when they were relatively stable they quarreled with Pakistan over the Durand line (the artificial and somewhat arbitrary border composed by Great Britain during the Great Game against Russia in the 19th century which the Afghans do not recognize but which Pakistan does) and over the Pashtunistan and Balochistan issues (acquiring territory from the latter region would give Afghanistan access to a long sought after warm water port). Moreover, as a means of agitating Pakistan and strengthening their own hand Afghanistan increased its ties to India maintaining a strong and healthy relationship for sometime up until the Afghan Civil War (the Taliban when they gained control of most of the country promptly cut most ties with India and strengthened relations with Pakistan).
In short, Pakistan for several decades felt encircled by hostile powers and as any good student of international relations knows if a country feels it's surrounded by aggressive powers it will take whatever steps it deems necessary to relieve itself of feeling threatened. Thus, Pakistan has a major interest in maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan, i.e., keeping the country weak and wobbly so that it continues to remain focused on domestic issues like the insurgency. But at the same time it obviously doesn't want a failed state on its border and so the double game: supporting the US efforts just enough to keep Afghanistan from completely failing but aiding elements of the insurgency as well to keep Afghanistan weak and principally focused on its internal security situation. One thing Pakistan cannot abide is a strong Afghanistan for fear that it will one day again ally itself closely with India.
The events surrounding the death of Bin Laden continue to bear this out and it is no surprise that Pakistan most likely knew that Bin Laden was hiding out in their country. All of this just emphasizes how crucial resolving the Pakistan problem is to a comprehensive and successful solution to the war in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the US has gained an important symbolic victory with the death of Usama Bin Laden (and kudos to President Obama by the way; give credit where credit is due). And with that I've rambled on enough. I leave you with a song that paradoxically (because it's European) expresses my patriotic feelings at the moment: