The killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a hill resort near the capital of Islamabad and headquarters of the elite Pakistan Military Academy for young cadets, supports charges that the Pakistan Army and ISI, the intelligence service, have been colluding and double dealing against the United States for years.
Now we are beginning to see the wrath of Congress directed at a country that has received $20 billion of U.S. aid since 9/11. It requires a massive suspension of disbelief to think that at least some Pakistani authorities were not aiding and abetting Bin Laden and providing a support process for his covert lifestyle in an outsized, secure compound near the Karakoram Highway — the old Silk Route — in a legendary and splendid garrison town. Like other events where there is global outrage, there is the risk that when the shouting dies, nothing substantive will change. But in the case of Pakistan, it must.
Besides being the second most populous Muslim nation in the world, with some democratic institutions and a vaguely secular nature, Pakistan’s strategic value to America relates to our complicated relations with the Peoples Republic of China. While America should have individual strategies for principals of the region, including Pakistan, they should realistically be seen in the context of offsetting the rise of China, America’s principal strategic objective in Asia.
China is Pakistan’s number one import partner, and a leading export partner. It has consistently supported Pakistan for decades, whether the government was military or civilian. The U.S. is viewed as an inconstant ally that cut and ran after the mujahedin expelled the Soviets from Afghanistan, and also applied trade sanctions in view of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology and proliferation effort. China is Pakistan’s leading military sponsor, and its design and joint venture prowess has led to the evolution of the Al-Khalid battle tank of the Pakistan Army. China is supportive of improved infrastructure in Pakistan and is assisting further construction of the Karakoram Highway. Having assisted in the development of a port at Gwadar, there is the possibility of its use as a naval base, giving it strategic access to the oil lanes of the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean.
America’s relationship with China is not well defined: that country is a trade partner, vast creditor, global competitor, cyberwarfare threat, and potential adversary in other ways. A direct Chinese naval presence, facilitated by Pakistan, is a challenge to both the U.S. and India.
Pakistan’s strategic importance is not only its relationship with China and its borders with that country, India, Afghanistan and Iran: It is the essential guardian and steward of a tribal region of ethnic commonality that straddles both Pakistan and Afghanistan after the U.S. and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan. With over 40 million Pashtuns (also known as Pathans) on both sides of the arbitrary Durand Line delineating the frontier, Pakistan can ill afford to antagonize an ethnic group of that size, sometimes known for ferocious nationalism.
For the foreseeable future, already poor relations with Pakistan will deteriorate further, as the U.S. demands to know whether it was deception or incompetence, or both, that gave sanctuary to Bin Laden after years of denials by Pakistan that he was hiding on their soil. However, it is not just the U.S. that is demanding answers from the Government of Pakistan: the people of Pakistan are doing so as well.
Pakistan was originally founded in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a secular country, and today it is a weak and evolving democracy with a relatively vibrant and free press. While charges of corruption, election fraud, and abuse of American civilian and military aid are legendary, the country has recently made recent strides to strengthen the status of the judiciary and investigate charges of election malfeasance. (About 45 percent of the voters in the 2007 voter list were deemed dubious by the Election Commission.)
Long term, the way for Pakistan to strengthen its democratic institutions is for the Pakistani public to demand that the Pakistan Army and affiliated ISI moderate their controlling influence and franchise, which even includes extensive business ventures and holdings. Now they are both badly discredited, as the world’s most wanted man was living at ease in an idyllic hill station under elegant chinar trees.
At this moment, the Pakistani public is ashamed and outraged — Bin Laden was discovered and killed near the capital, and American aircraft and Navy SEAL forces penetrated deep into Pakistan without the knowledge of Islamabad. Pakistan has long viewed itself as a victim of jihadist terror, abandoned by the U.S. But whatever moral authority Pakistan could claim as a partner in the war on terror is now much diminished.
It will take the Pakistani people themselves to wrest control of their nation state and build credible democratic institutions. With unprecedented public outrage aimed at the elite Pakistan Army and ISI, who have at least for the moment lost some of their leverage, the people have their chance, and the time for reform is now.
America’s policies toward Pakistan will not be tidy and unambiguous, since the Pakistan Army is ultimately a stabilizing force should evolution toward democracy fail. But we now have the opportunity to demand more from Pakistan and to support the legitimate aspirations of its people.