Pakistan has a long history of supporting terrorist groups
American special forces not only assassinated Osama bin Laden in their precision strike on Abbottabad. They also shot holes in Pakistan’s status as a credible and trustworthy ally in the fight against terrorism.
With the now-famous words “Geronimo EKIA”, the USA’s elite SEAL Team Six gave President Barack Obama the solution to a problem that had dogged the world’s major military power for close to a decade.
However, the success of the clandestine raid also handed Obama a new dilemma which may remain with the United States for an equally long period – the question of whether it can trust Pakistan as an ally in the fight against terrorism.
With bin Laden’s corpse in their possession, SEAL Team Six raced for Afghan airspace in order to avoid a military confrontation with the Air Force jets that had been scrambled in response to their incursion into Pakistani air space.
In getting out before the jets arrived, the Americans avoided a damaging confrontation with their allies. But only temporarily. The euphoria that flowed in the days after the successful mission has since given way to increasingly strident language between the two nations.
On the Pakistani side, there is growing resentment of the mistrust inherent in the decision to keep the raid secret, and anger at the breach of sovereignty that took place.
On the American side, the details of bin Laden’s long stay in Abbottabad have prompted public and political anger at the incompetence or complicity (or both) of Pakistan’s military and intelligence communities.
The question for Obama now is what to do with the Pakistan relationship in the future.
There can be no doubt that senior officials were involved in protecting bin Laden. We can be certain of this because of the way Pakistan’s counter-terrorism services historically have operated in conjunction with terrorist groups, including those known to support al-Qaeda.
Terrorist organisations have a lot in common with insurgent networks and organised crime groups; they all require support within communities and protection from officials in order to reside in a single location.
Far from rooting them out, Pakistan’s military and in particular the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has a long history of supporting such groups who act as Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan and India.
One such group is Hizbul Mujahedeen, which is the largest Islamist militant group fighting Indian troops in Kashmir. Hizbul Mujahedeen has been allowed to operate freely within Pakistan as it shares the common goal with Pakistan’s military of controlling all of Kashmir.
It is known that Hizbul Mujahedeen owned the compound in which bin Laden had been living, thus providing the support and ‘cover’ for bin Laden to live under the noses of Pakistan’s generals.
Bin Laden, given the time he had been in the locality, was clearly confident in the security provided by his support network. The arrest of the Indonesian Islamist Umar Patek, one of the 2002 Bali bombing conspirators, in Abbottabad earlier this year did not even scare him into relocating.
Neither had other security operations around Abbotabad. Obviously, he knew the Pakistani intelligence services posed no threat to him.
The continued support of militant groups within Pakistan’s borders continues to complicate the war against al-Qaeda, the frontline of which now lies firmly within that nation.
For the United States and its allies, access to bases and airspace is vital for intelligence collection and allowing counter-terrorist operations to take place.
Australia participates in several confidence-building measures with Pakistan’s military, such as sending individuals to attend each other’s training courses, and AusAid is active in Pakistan.
The Unites States provides military training in counterinsurgency techniques to Pakistan, last year allocating USD$800 million to that purpose alone, and has provided USD$18 billion in aid since 2002. All of this is designed to woo Pakistan’s military into cooperating with our security goals.
To some extent it has worked. Pakistan’s military conducted large scale operations in the Swat Valley during 2009 to regain control from Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistan’s own Taliban insurgents) who had seized control of the region. This action supported Western goals in Afghanistan.
But Tehrik-i-Taliban is also a direct threat to the Pakistani state and defeating it is very much in Pakistan’s national interest. Therein lies the problem. No matter how much aid and support the West provides to Pakistan, its government, and particularly its military, will always do what they believe is best for Pakistan.
So as long as elements within Pakistan’s military believe supporting Islamist militant groups who target India is in their national interest they will continue to do so. That these groups then support al Qaeda is a risk the ISI seems willing to take.
Just how long the United States is prepared to tolerate this double standard remains to be seen. For now, however, Barack Obama has little choice.
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