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Pakistan: The Challenge Lies Within – Imtiaz Gul and Imdadullah Mehr

Pakistan: The Challenge Lies Within – Imtiaz Gul and Imdadullah Mehr


Since its creation in 1947 as an independent Muslim state, carved out of the undivided India, Pakistan has wobbled for a multitude of proximate reasons; strategic political blunders, incompetence of civilian and military rulers, antagonistic approach towards India and its geo-strategic location that places it at the cross-roads of central, south and southeast Asia in a neighborhood dominated by China, India and Russia. It also neighbours Iran, which has been at odds with the United States since the Iranian Revolution of January 1979.

It is therefore no coincidence that twice Pakistan became part of two US-led and on both occasions military internationally isolated dictators were ruling Pakistan; General Ziaul Haq lapped up the opportunity of fighting the Soviet Union troops in Afghanistan in   late 1970s, once Washington decided to confront and bleed the Soviets in that country, and General Pervez Musharraf happily and unconditionally allied himself with Washington within days of the terrorists attacks of September 2001 in the United States. This way both generals got the evasive international legitimacy that they had been looking for following their coups against democratic governments.* On the one hand this fact acutely contributed to maintain the murkiness of alliance with US, while on the other hand it provided an opportunity to the dictators to take arbitrary decisions, and those very decisions ruptured the society from within. Thus the history of neglect on domestic policy front and sheer impulsiveness in decision making at foreign policy level fatally started backfiring in 2004 and reached to its pinnacle in 2011.

Although Pakistan became the ‘frontline state’ in the questionable War on Terror with the unequivocal commitments to the international community of leaving behind the history of its nexus with terrorists, yet it  allegedly  failed to deliver. “Elements in the government and security service appear to be playing a double, if not triple game—. The United States has less and less confidence that Pakistan can be viewed as an ally”[i], has been the common narrative on Pakistan’s role in war against terrorism. And the narrative was further solidified by the death of Osama bin Laden on the Pakistani soil in May 2011. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the level of discontentment among the masses and the scale of social, sectarian, political, ethnic, separatist and extremist violence in the society are unmatchable in its checkered history. In the backdrop of this prevalent volatility of situation in Pakistan, the paper seeks to explore and assess the gravity of internal security challenges in Pakistan, which are rapidly rendering the state ungovernable and the people bleed.

Soul-searching Questions

Since 2001, the location and fate of Osama bin Laden, the self-proclaimed head of Al Qaeda, captivated intelligence services, and members of the public, around the world. However, in the wake of the May 2, 2011 raid in Abbottabad, questions agitating many do not relate merely to where Osama bin Laden had been all these years; they are more focused on how the most wanted terrorist came to be killed by US Navy SEALs in the very shadow of a Pakistan military institution and who knew he was there? Who, if any, among the intelligence and the military provided him the cover? What strategic value, if any, did they see in sheltering bin Laden? Little did they realize bin Laden’s discovery in Abbottabad would amount to double jeopardy for the country, an unparalleled humiliation indeed?

Since his escape from the Tora Bora caves in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001, until his elimination by Navy SEALs  in Abbottabad , Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted and hunted terrorist, was presumed to have lived the life of a gypsy. Now it is clear a large house in Abbottabad, which is home to the Pakistan Military Academy gave bin Laden his last refuge. Few in and outside believed he could have been there for so long without the knowledge of, or of elements within, the Pakistani security establishment. We were totally in dark. This is what all top people, the army chief General Kayani, and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the then head of the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told the world. Lt. Gen. Pasha and his subordinates told members of the Abbottabad Commission the same in several meetings.

Nobody knew for how long bin Laden or the family had been living there, until the wives testified before the Abbottabad Commission that they all had moved into the compound some time in 2005. Some of the documents – personal diaries – also suggest bin Laden and family came to Abbottabad in that year. Patchy personal notes on family matters were also found among the cache of documents; for instance some details of personal expenses, some figures, presumably the cost of construction of the house.

Some of the hand-written and printed documents also provided a glimpse into the ever-deepening nexus between Al Qaeda and the Pakistani militants; for instance, officials said, one pamphlet hailed all those militants who had in October 2009 staged brazen siege and took-over the Manawan Police Training School in Lahore. The siege had lasted several hours and ended with the killing of all the insurgents. Al Qaeda had lauded their “great sacrifice in its pamphlets”. Some documents related to great “appreciation for the brutal assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in December 2007; a sniper targeted her with a pistol immediately after a public rally at Rawalpindi south of Islamabad, followed within a couple of seconds with a suicide blast that killed several dozen on the spot.

Although the presence and killing of bin Laden on Pakistan soil made Pakistan complicit in his hiding, yet the proof to substantiate these claims is, hitherto missing. “We have no evidence of any high-level official knowing about bin Laden but, like you, I have to assume that lower-level people had to have known something. But we haven’t proven that. It could be asserted, but not yet proven”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a testimony on March 1, 2012.[ii] Clinton also conceded the assumption that the lower -level people might have known about Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, it is hard to prove. “But, like you, I have to assume that lower-level people had to have known something. But we haven’t proven that. It could be asserted, but not yet proven,” she underlined in what was a reiteration of the commonly held belief that bin Laden stayed in Pakistan with the knowledge and support of at least some elements within the security establishment.[iii]

Ten days later, the Commander of the United States Central Command, General James Mattis, responded more or less in the same manner in response to Republican member Joe Courtney’s query on the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. He underlined that he had looked at the evidence and he does not believe that anyone in authority in Pakistan was aware that the Al-Qaeda chief was in Abbottabad. He said he was well aware that nobody had the knowledge of Osama’s presence in Abbottabad.[iv]

Viewed against these high-level statements, it seemed that the American leadership intended to bury the issue of alleged Pakistani complicity in sheltering bin Laden, and was focused more on the challenges ahead, including keeping the heat up on remnants of Al Qaeda and bracing for the spring 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of the bulk of the American and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces from Afghanistan. After proving that bin Laden did live in Pakistan until his elimination, mending fences with Pakistan for the future appeared to be more vital for the administration rather than flogging a dead horse.

The Next Challenge

What is the future of Al Qaeda? And will the new Al Qaeda superman Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, be able to fit into bin Laden’s shoes? Well, regardless of how much Al Qaeda can and will revolve around him, Zawahiri poses formidable challenges well as a test, for the Pakistani and American intelligence. The latter believe the new Al Qaeda chief is somewhere in Pakistan, the former denies this. Pakistan has asked the US to share information to allow them to scoop up  Zawahiri – if indeed he is in Pakistan; the US has been reluctant precisely for the same reasons that dictated complete secrecy in the case of Osama bin Laden i.e. lack of trust in the Pakistani intelligence world, which had for long remained inter-twined with groups such as Lashkar-e- Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – all of whom are clearly sympathetic, if not supportive, of Al Qaeda’s world view, and derive political guidance from it.

Officials in Washington believe that elimination of bin Laden could potentially be a terminal blow to Al Qaeda. Quoting a security official in Washington, reports in ABC News as well as in The Washington Post (David Ignatius ) referred to a letter in which bin Laden proposed changing Al Qaeda’s name “because of the group’s declining public image, presumably because of their indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims, and loss of control over its narrative. The letters show a brooding, frustrated and isolated bin Laden who because of the extreme tempo of international counterterrorism efforts is disconnected from other members of his organization and from the realities on the ground.”  Senior British officials also drew similar conclusions towards the end of 2011. “They believed that a last push in 2012 would likely definitively destroy Al-Qaida’s remaining senior leadership in Pakistan, opening a new phase in the battle against Islamist terrorism.”[v]


This optimism stemmed from the deaths of many senior members of the organization – at least two dozen – in the relentless CIA-led drone campaign against targets in the volatile Waziristan region of Pakistan. Some of those who escaped the pilotless drones – known as Predators and Reapers as the Hellfire missiles fired thereof – and the security forces reportedly headed to north Africa, sparking fears that this region could become a new ‘theatre of jihad’ in coming months or years.

Officials in Pakistan also agreed with these assessments, saying Osama bin Laden’s death severely damaged Al Qaeda’s finances and left the shadowy network struggling to survive in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Arab journalists based in Pakistan opined that Zawahiri had neither the stature nor the networks to collect funds from Gulf donors and the organisation’s finances quickly began to dwindle after the death. Shrinking financial resources also mean diminishing influence over local Al Qaeda affiliates, who may not be as amenable to the organisation’s core messaging under Zawahiri.

Beside the loss of lead commanders and strategists the organization was also beset by shrinking flow of volunteers from other countries, particularly from the Arabian Peninsula. Increased electronic surveillance and greater intelligence coordination among the US-led NATO members and most Muslim countries also discouraged many from embarking on what has meanwhile become a somewhat risky journey, though the porous nature of Pakistan’s security structures and the social support networks do at times manage to slip new recruits through to the embattled border regions.

Soon after Bin Laden’s end, US intelligence sources had put the number of Al-Qaida at less than 100; most of them were on the run – either lying extremely low or operating marginally because of the mounting pre-dominance of local networks, such as the Haqqani Network, in the Afghan insurgency.[vi] The US and other Western officials are convinced that the Haqqani family acts as an intermediary between the Pakistani intelligence ISI and Pakistani militant groups such as the TTP, North Waziristan and Mullah Nazir’s Tehrik-e-Taliban (South Waziristan).

Post Bin Laden – Pakistan:  Double Jeopardy

After more than decade of involvement in the war against militant networks, Pakistan faced a double jeopardy; on the one hand, the US-led western world still looked at it with suspicion – as a reluctant ally, accused in the past of a double-speak as well. On the other hand, a result of the War on Terror, Pakistan had lost over 40,000 citizens and security personnel in at least 300 suicide attacks and over 3,000 ambushes, bomb and sniper attacks until March 2012.  In this environment filled with insecurity, radicalism and religious conservatism continue to grow; equally fuelled and augmented by 350 US drone strikes (over 150 in 2011 alone) as well as a politically damaging partnership with the United States.[vii] In conjunction, Pakistan’s economy continues downwards trajectory – battered by large-scale military operations in the tribal and border regions. The government economists and private research institutions agree on the impact of the War on Terror as up to $67 billion – cumulative losses in terms of flight of capital, negative investment, low productivity, a crippling energy crisis and the resultant massive unemployment.

If Pakistan wants the world to empathize with its narrative it shall have to demonstrate its commitment to counter-terrorism, through its actions against all those groups and people who threaten world peace. Military and civilian government officials insist this is happening. Many analysts like Talat Masood and Riaz Khokhar, a former ambassador, Ayaz Amir, a popular columnist, also believe so. But these analysts emphasize on a much broader recognition that these groups as a whole have become an existential challenge to Pakistan itself. In the backdrop of 2nd May US raid, Zafar Hilali, a renowned Pakistani analyst and former ambassador observed:

Regardless of whether we emerge as knaves or fools when we get to know more about the 2 May operation, it has already proved to be a major public relations disaster for the country and particularly the military. And if Pakistan’s complicity is proved, it would amount to an indictment of a whole system and a way of thinking. But even if it is not, it would still reveal unparalleled incompetence.[viii]

It probably is just a matter of time till we get to know the truth about the real circumstances surrounding the American raid on bin Laden’s compound. But the writing on the wall for Pakistan is clear; it must chart a new course on a few crucial issues such as the alleged nexus between the intelligence and some militant groups, and relations with countries such as India, Afghanistan, and the United States.

Nothing illustrates Pakistan’s current predicament better than this that “If the US is the 800-pound gorilla that stamps on itself, Pakistan is like a python which thinks it’s crushing its prey but is really asphyxiating itself”, according to Cyril Almeida.[ix] Part of the reason Pakistan commands so little respect in the world of diplomacy and international relations is that the self-appointed custodians of the national interest are inveterate liars, Almeida quipped in an unusually critical review of the fire-works between Islamabad and Washington. This also highlighted the overflowing public frustrations with the military and indifferent political elite.

This frustration and its criticism is also echoed by former foreign secretary Riaz Khan. According to Khan, Pakistan is in the midst of ‘intellectual crisis’. He underlined that yet another concern is the regressive tendency Pakistani thinking has shown towards an easy resort to denial. This habit has its roots in the convenient myth of non-interference in Afghanistan’s affairs Pakistan maintained during the period of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Khan observes in his book Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity.

Khan takes a deep dig at the policies, of which he was also an essential part, and says they were largely the result of denial and ambivalence. He observed:

“Denial of interference in Afghanistan’s affairs, of Pakistan’s nuclear programme in the 1980s and of support to the Kashmir insurgency in the 1990s) were issues of high national policy on which all states adopt positions in conformity with their national interests. However, issues of lesser import such as the presence of Osama or Mullah Omar or cross-border activity by Afghan Taliban from the Pakistani side did not warrant such categorical denials as were initially maintained in official statements. A matter-of-fact or noncommittal position, taking into account the peculiar condition of the border regions, could do no damage, politically and diplomatically.”

An urgent civilian-military consensus for a turn-around of these policies seems to be the only way out of Pakistan’s current multiple crises. In the absence of a clearly defined foreign policy, and a drastic review of its main contours, Pakistan’s frictions and fracas with the US, India, and Afghanistan

will keep causing upsets. Without synchronizing and rationalizing foreign policy objectives, both the military and the civilians will keep facing embarrassments and searching questions.

Pakistan should also realize that the United States will relentlessly pursue its national interest and hunt people that are, or perceived to be, a threat to its national interests. Such a realization will certainly save it more embarrassments (Osama bin Laden), and also help it neutralize and gradually weed out the radical Islamist forces it had once supported and nurtured.

Much will depend on how the armed forces – the General Headquarters – or sections of the intelligence – position themselves in rapidly changing world. Pakistani military most probably realizes the return of the Taliban is almost impossible even after the bulk withdrawal of the US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan. It probably also looks at improved relations with India as key to take the country out of its economic woes, learn from experiences of Japan, Turkey, Malaysia,  and win favour with the rest of the global community, which views economic cooperation and free trade as the panacea for Pakistan’s multiple crisis.

At a round table of South Asia experts in London (late March 2012) – where prominent scholars such as Professor Anatol Lieven, and several NATO officials representing the United Kingdom also participated – analysts proposed that to bring about change in Pakistani attitude, western powers need to devise a more incentivized strategy that gives a worried and embattled Pakistan army some space to rethink. It has no reason to change its outlook on India and Afghanistan, particularly when it knows well that the US and NATO are not likely to abandon Afghanistan altogether.  Some experts also pointed out that Pakistan is spending far more than it received in US and other aid – illustrated through the simple fact that direct foreign investment in Pakistan in 2010-2012 ran only a few hundred million dollars. Its annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth, contrary to a minimum requirement of six percent – stagnated around a dismal 2.5 percent because of the volatile security conditions, coupled with severe power shortages. Some argued that NATO/US must appreciate Pakistan’s legitimate foreign policy concerns i.e. the threat of Pashtun militancy, Balochistan insurgency, the fear of ‘encirclement of Pakistan’ by India and Afghanistan. Some underscored the need for the US-NATO to have a more regional-inclusive strategy, keeping in view the intricacies of Pakistan’s foreign policy dynamics i.e. its relations with India, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Saudi-Arabia, the Gulf and Turkey. These relationships, if smoothened, can also play out positively for the larger regional security and economic cooperation.

A June 2011 Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington report also – made more or less similar recommendations. The report narrated nearly 30 recommendations to the Obama administration, saying that a robust program of U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan serves important interests of both countries and warned against substantial mid-course changes in the financial assistance programme for Pakistan.[x] The experts advised Washington to continue to implement the 1.5 billion dollars a year Kerry Lugar Bill (KLB) aid programme without adding security – or economic-reform-related conditions – but advocate reforms.

It recommended, inter alia, to

At the same time, as the civilian and military leadership began taking a fresh look at relations with the United States in early 2012, analysts advised that, while redefining the terms of engagement in border regions (drone strikes and military operations in return for Coalition Support Funds), was a legitimate exercise, the Pakistani leaders must also weigh available options realistically. Does Pakistan have many choices? Very limited, it seems. In no way can Islamabad withstand the military superiority of the US. Neither can it, nor should it, expect the US to relent pressure on issues which the American establishment considers crucial to its geo-political goals. Crucial among these goals is the elimination of Al Qaeda-led opposition – wherever it may be found. And central to the pursuit of this objective is the drone warfare. The drone campaign will therefore likely continue. The US may, and should, agree to recast the drone strategy by perhaps creating a joint ownership, whereby Pakistan can project them either as joint ventures or exclusively their own effort. But expecting it to altogether abandon this extremely cost-effective way of fighting Al Qaeda is probably wishful under current circumstances.

The Way forward

Given the scale of current economic adversity and the heavy reliance on the green signal of Washington for assistance from other NATO countries as well as the international finance institutions such as the World Bank, Pakistan can ill-afford to deny these countries what they want. Nor would it want international financial and diplomatic pressures by opting for a longer confrontation.

As far its relations with China, the past couple of decades have seen the Chinese leadership advising Pakistan to put intricate contentions issues with India i.e. Kashmir on the backburner and look for creating peace through bilateral trade. While China may still be considered a close friend, the Chinese leadership is not likely to defend or justify any move that it may interpret as unrealistic. There is hardly any way to draw on Chinese support because of Beijing’s own crucial economic interests all over the world. Nor will the US-India-Afghan nexus provide any breather if denial and reticence continued to mark the mood in Islamabad.

Can Pakistan really afford to stick to its maximalist positions vis-à-vis a rapidly growing India? Certainly not. Pakistani leadership – both the military and the civilian – therefore must stop confusing tactics with strategy. Such advice keeps coming in various forms not only from China but also from friends in Turkey. Concerned Turk leaders, including Burhan Kayaturk, a prominent member of the Turkish parliament,  for instance, are also advising Islamabad to rethink its external relations in a more pragmatic and realistic way.

“Pakistanis are usually very emotional about India and Afghanistan. They also indulge in finger-pointing across the border”, Kayaturk remarked during his visit to Islamabad. A very influential member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Kayaturk said, as long as this attitude continues; relations with India and Afghanistan will remain dogged. Similarly, the MP pointed out, Afghans may be averse to ‘Indian boots-on-ground’ but not to the Indian money. The same is true for relations with the United States, he said, adding that dependence in a volatile region makes Pakistan more vulnerable to risks of instability.

Moreover, the Pakistani establishment must shed its romantic obsession with the country’s ‘strategic location’. This has only prevented it from thinking futuristically and pragmatically so far. Blockade and reopening of NATO supplies in the backdrop of Salala check post attack is a case in point, where Pakistani decision makers made deleterious miscalculations. Two-thirds of these supplies used to go through Pakistan last year. But by November, they were reduced to 50 percent as the US began to reply on the northern route. When it comes to protecting their geo-political interests, the US-led alliance will readjust and most probably absorb even higher transportation costs.

Against the backdrop of this severity of the challenge and scale of the price paid by the state and society, there is urgent of ‘course correction’ on the part of Pakistani political and military leadership. It is time to look inwardly and jettison the policy of creating and nurturing militant proxies, which at times, will wage its wars against the adversaries. Pakistan did this during last three decades, but now it has become perilously unsustainable. Political leadership should make the democracy work in the country and the military leadership must think beyond proxies to secure the borders of the state.


Imtiaz Gul is the author of Pakistan: Before and After Osama and a senior research fellow at the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies.

Imdadullah Mehr senior research fellow at the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies.

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