Which world leader has the biggest headache caused by the death of Osama bin-Laden? That would have to be General Ashfaq Kayani, commander of Pakistan’s military and, as such, the most powerful man in the country where al-Qaeda’s fugitive leader had been hiding in plain sight.
Kayani now faces an escalation of the already crisis-level tensions in the relationship with his military’s main benefactor, the United States, whose billions of dollars in aid to the Pakistani military is intended, first and foremost, to buy cooperation against al-Qaeda. Sure, the U.S. and Pakistan have been at odds on the question of the Taliban since American forces first went into Afghanistan, but not on al-Qaeda — even back then, Gen. Pervez Musharraf essentially tried to persuade Pakistan’s longtime Afghan proxy to hand over Bin Laden. In the years that followed Pakistan’s intelligence service had helped the U.S. roll up hundreds of the movement’s key operatives, including 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. Even the Haqqani network, the most militant of the Taliban groups which has relations with al-Qaeda but also with the ISI, was arguably based on a Pakistani perspective on the need to maintain influence in post-U.S. Afghanistan.
While it’s hard to imagine Bin Laden managing to set up a fortress-mansion worthy of a narco kingpin within spitting distance of Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point but not raising any questions in what is essentially a police state, it’s also hard to see a motivation for Pakistan hiding Bin Laden from his American pursuers.
Even though Pakistan has always operated on the basis of securing its own interests in Afghanistan — which are not the same as those of the U.S. and include a desire to restore at least some of the power of its Taliban proxies in Kabul — hiding Bin Laden would appear to be counterintuitive: After all, the Pakistan security establishment’s goal is to get the U.S. to end its mission in Afghanistan, which Pakistani generals see as the root cause of their domestic insurgency. That would seem, if anything, to give the Pakistani security establishment an incentive to help America find and eliminate Bin Laden, because his removal from the scene creates an an exit ramp for the Americans to begin leaving Afghanistan.
(A counter-argument, perhaps, might be that because the pursuit of al-Qaeda makes Pakistan’s U.S. benefactor treat that country’s military leadership with kid gloves, the removal of the Bin Laden factor might prompt Washington to become a lot less indulgent of a nuclear-armed state coddling extremists.)
But it really depends on what we mean by “Pakistan”. The civilian government ostensibly gives the military its marching orders, but that’s a fiction that nobody bothers to seriously sustain. And even in the security establishment, it’s quite conceivable — even apparent, at times in the past — that various elements at times pursue competing agendas. Whatever the explanation, however, it’s likely that the Bin Laden episode will be a dangerous irritant to an already rapidly rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan intelligence and security relationship. Kayani’s military badly needs that U.S. stipend, which will come at a cost of rising pressure to provide satisfactory account that assuages suspicions of a double game.
Still, cooling U.S. outrage over any Pakistani coddling of bin Laden is only half of Kayani’s problem: The other half will be the fact that it will be the violent backlash by Bin Laden’s supporters and allies inside Pakistan, who assume that the Pakistani authorities were complicit in the Bin Laden U.S. raid, just as they assume Pakistani complicity in the ongoing drone wars in Waziristan. Reports suggest that local militants in the tribal areas are planning to break various cease-fire agreements and rekindle a domestic insurgency that draws the Army into fighting a civil war. It is Pakistanis rather than Americans who will pay the highest price in blood for the revenge wrought by Bin Laden’s acolytes.
Pakistan may be the only country in which al-Qaeda has come close to realizing its key objective of provoking jihadist-led rebellions against regimes in Muslim countries aligned with the West. While most of the Arab and Muslim world has largely ignored Bin Laden, even when they’ve risen to challenge U.S.-backed dictatorships, Pakistan is probably the only country in the world where Bin Laden’s death will be marked by angry mobs on the streets brandishing his portrait. These elements are not the majority of Pakistanis, of course, but they are far more numerous and present on Pakistan’s streets than they are in most other Muslim countries that Bin Laden had hoped to rally to his flag. Throughout the Arab world, his death has been greeted largely with a collective shrug by people fighting their own local political battles in which al-Qaeda is irrelevant, except when its threat is cited as an excuse by tyrants to hold onto power.
The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan provoked by the 9/11 attacks stoked existing anti-American feeling in Pakistan to a fever pitch: When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s regime had actively encouraged — with U.S. support — its citizens to go next door and fighting the “infidel” occupier. And the Pakistani public was no more tolerant of a U.S. invasion than it had been of a Soviet one — thousands of Pakistanis went across the border, once again, to fight the “infidel”, and many in Pakistan’s military establishment see the U.S. presence next door as the key driver of domestic Taliban extremism.
Pakistan’s generals, then, have been caught since 2001 between obliging their ally and patron in Washington, and appeasing their anti-American public — while the majority of Pakistanis don’t embrace Bin Laden, they are even more antagonistic to the United States now than they were in 2001. The result has been a growing domestic extremism, expressed even on purely domestic issues such as the persecution of Pakistani Christians, and the political marginalization of those most inclined to cooperate with the West.
Thus Kayani’s dilemma: The U.S. demands, probably now with increasing urgency, that he do more to tackle Bin Laden’s followers and other extremist groups on his soil; much of his own public berates him for doing too much. Pakistan’s regime may not be in any danger of being overthrown, which Bin Laden would have preferred. But al-Qaeda has been more successful in Pakistan, than anywhere else, in driving a wedge between a pro-Western regime and its own people on the basis of its cooperation against the jihadists, and making open cooperation with the U.S. increasingly untenable.