There is nothing simple in the political life of Pakistan. It was fully predictable that the American operation that ended in the killing of Osama bin Laden would be condemned by at least several groups in Pakistan. When the Pakistan military had to admit it had not been briefed on the special operations mission, it was a given it would have to object vigorously to the American “invasion” of its country.
To make the affair even more complicated, if the Pakistan intelligence service, ISI, had been given a “heads up,” it certainly would have indicated to its American counterparts that it would have to swear it never had been briefed. The U.S. intelligence liaison would have understood and expected this reaction. That’s the simple part. Not so simple has been the furor stirred up by ISI-connected political circles to protect radical groups demanding a break in relations with the United States.
The bin Laden operation aside, the umbrella Islamist group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, has done its best in the last two years to undermine Pakistan-American relations through political means. This was as opposed to the three years before when the group, for all intents and purposes, physically controlled the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (so-named in 2010) and the federal areas of what once was pre-independence India’s North-West Frontier Province. It’s still often referred to these days as the “Northwest Territory” of Pakistan, even though it’s actually in the northeastern sector of the country bordering on Afghanistan to the northwest. Further to the northeast is Gilgit-Baltistan, which until 2009 was called Northern Areas. As was said, nothing is simple in Pakistan.
Pakistani army forces did a good job in recent years of limiting the sanctuaries for the Tehrik-i-Taliban, but still have been unable to prevent a continuation of the bombings and other insurgent operations in the mountainous border areas with Afghanistan. Conspicuously the Pakistan Army has been forced to concentrate troop levels along the rugged border areas to counter what its command has referred to as “a continuing threat.” It hasn’t wanted to admit that elements of the Tehrik-i-Taliban have made the border a virtual highway of insurgent traffic. At the same time Pakistan army units are still trying to suppress the various armed groups operating in the Swat and other mountain-rimmed valleys of the Indus River that the Tehrik-i-Taliban have long sought to mold into a new Islamic entity.
While all this tough traditional military slogging goes on, the ever active political throat-cutting has continued in the capital, Islamabad. In April, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was found in contempt of the Supreme Court. He had refused to pursue corruption investigations of his own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, whose family has been the dominant force in Sindh Province for decades. Out to get Zardari (aka Mr. Ten Percent) is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. With perfect Pakistani timing, the son of the Chief Justice was charged by an army-connected construction billionaire with conspiracy in a multi-million dollar attempt to influence his father’s court.
Perhaps the most confusing of recent combined economic/political/military issues in Pakistan is the seven-month closure of the NATO supply line that extends from Karachi through to the Torkham-Khyber border crossing into Afghanistan. Supposedly the government-ordered blockade was a punishment of NATO, in general, and the U.S., in particular, for uncoordinated drone attacks against militants, and friendly fire deaths of Pakistani soldiers. Government sources indicated, however, it was at least in part a reaction against the U.S. Navy SEAL operation against bin Laden.
All this closure did was prove the NATO forces could re-supply through their northern routes to Afghanistan while denying the considerable benefit that the Pakistani supply route brings to its local economy. On top of this legal commerce one report suggests up to 20 percent of the multi-hundred million dollar shipments ends up in the hands organized crime, politicians, police, merchants and anyone else that has the ability to gain from cargo that “falls off the back of a lorry.”
The incident that has been the least understood in recent years is the arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Shakil al-Afridi. Dr. al-Afridi , a very well known physician working in the Khyber region, apparently initiated a program of hepatitis-B vaccinations at the direction of CIA case officers as a device to corroborate the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. A tribal court convicted Dr. al-Afridi of treason and he is now purportedly residing in the central jail in Peshawar, which along with Abbottabad, is administratively situated in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Hmm?
Clearly some element in ISI knew where bin Laden was hiding. Additionally, Dr. al-Afridi himself had his own ISI connections as would anyone working professionally in the Khyber region. Apparently the doctor broke the golden rule of doing something — anything — and not telling the ISI. Legal authorities in Pakistan have stated that there are enough holes in Dr. al-Afridi’s conviction so as to allow it to be overturned — by the Pakistan Supreme Court. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, the mind of the Chief Justice is concentrated elsewhere at the moment.
The Supreme Court and the Pakistani government remain in a power struggle as it has since former President Musharraf tried to close down the Court. The real issue is the authority of the Court over the Executive Office, and ultimately the Presidency itself. And this is just the beginning of the problems of governance that has resulted in three successful military coups since independence and at least 3-4 unsuccessful ones.