After Osama: Stop feeding the beast

Bin Laden’s discovery in a wealthy suburb of Abbottabad raises questions over US military funding to Pakistan.

bin laden - wanted poster
An October 2001 rally held in in support of bin Laden in Quetta, Pakistan, drew thousands of people protesting US air strikes in Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

After years of former Pakistani military dictator General Musharraf assuring the world that bin Laden was either dead or in Afghanistan, he was found and dispatched by US special forces in the town of Abbottabad, a mere 30 miles 50km as the crow flies from the capital Islamabad.

Abbottabad is a colonial era army “cantonment” or garrison town and home to the Pakistan Military Academy PMA Kakul, less than two miles from the compound in question. To put it in perspective, it is like capturing Carlos the Jackal just down the road from West Point or Sandhurst.

The notion that Pakistan’s all pervasive Army-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence was unaware of bin Laden’s presence beggars belief.  

Although Bush-era National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley feigned total surprise about the location and its implications in an on-air interview after the news broke, WikiLeaks, as well as other sources such as investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s most recent book, tell a very different story.

By 2008, the United States political and military leadership had lost all remnants of faith in the trustworthiness of the Pakistani military and its intelligence wing, the ISI, internally acknowledging that it consistently “hunted with the hounds and ran with the hares”, including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba and was involved in planning terrorist attacks from Kabul to Mumbai.

Pakistani intelligence has had a close relationship with bin Laden since the early 1980s, when he acted as a courier, transferring funds from Saudi intelligence and its establishment to the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami to support the anti-Soviet jihad.

It is no surprise that bin Laden chose to relocate to eastern Afghanistan, an area within Pakistan’s sphere of influence, in 1996 after he was expelled from Sudan under US pressure.

Of course, the relationship has never been smooth Pakistan’s opportunism alienated al-Qaeda just as much as such behaviour alienated the United States but also made it just as indispensable.

Funded by the US taxpayer

Despite this, the United States continued to funnel billions to the Pakistani armed forces in sophisticated weapons and cash most recently a $2 billion package announced in October 2010 under the State Department’s Foreign Military Finance Program.

The US is paying, not only for the use of Pakistan as a logistical corridor to its troops in Afghanistan, but for the privilege of conducting an increasingly aggressive covert counter-terrorism campaign on Pakistani soil often against the Pakistani government’s client groups.

Analysis by SISMEC, the New America Foundation and others showed a massive increase in drone strikes in the tribal area of North Waziristan after the summer of 2008, largely aimed at pro-ISI groups such as the Haqqani network.

Most recently, US security contractor Raymond Davis was held in Pakistan for almost two months (17 January to March 16, 2011) after fatally shooting two alleged ISI agents, when he was believed to be surveilling the LeT in Lahore.

As for Davis’ claim that he thought he was being robbed, well that one’s for the birds. The Davis saga came at the same time that the Obama administration was reportedly finalising plans for the killing of Osama bin Laden, a coincidence that we are sure we will be hearing more about.

America’s first attempt to kill Osama bin Laden came 13 years ago in August 1998, when president Bill Clinton launched “Operation Infinite Reach” in retaliation for the suicide bombings that devastated US embassies in Nairobi and Daressalam.

Sixty six cruise missiles were launched from the Arabian Sea at camps in eastern Afghanistan to kill Al Qaeda’s senior leadership who were due to meet in a shura council.

Pakistan’s military leadership was informed by US counterparts shortly before the missiles entered their airspace, just in case they mistook it for an Indian attack (India and Pakistan had just tested nuclear weapons earlier in May).

Shortly after, bin Laden cancelled his planned meeting. Many US officials believe the Pakistani Army and the ISI tipped bin Laden off.

Covert operations

It is this long and frustrating history that explains why the US chose to conduct this mission covertly and unilaterally.

In spite of face-saving Pakistani claims of joint execution, it was conducted in much the same way the US might have in a semi-hostile country, such as Syria in October 2008, rather than its proclaimed “frontline ally” in what used to be called the “war on terror”.

It seems that Pakistani authorities had no clear idea of what was going on until it was all over, and a US helicopter bearing the SEAL team and bin Laden’s body touched down at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

There is an inevitable question about timing. Why on earth did it take the US so long to succeed?

The standard, official defence was that this was a rugged area, filled with implacably hostile tribesmen. Today, questions are being finally asked about the Pakistani Army’s complicity.

The truth is deeper, and more unpleasant, and has much to do with the ways in which dictators around the world manipulate US policy with embarrassing ease.

For almost seven years after 9/11, General Musharraf, a warmonger who seized power in a coup in 1999, assured Bush that he was the only man who could hold back the violent fundamentalists and prevent them from seizing control of Pakistan’s government and its nuclear weapons.

The US should not push too hard, but rather leave Musharraf to crush the extremists.

The reality was that the Pakistani government deliberately supported the takeover of extremist parties such as the Islamist MMA alliance in 2003 and facilitated the comeback of the Taliban, all the while profiting handsomely from generous US aid and the lifting of nuclear sanctions.

This was despite the fact that democratically elected governments in both Afghanistan (Karzai’s 2004 election was accepted as free and fair) and India complained vociferously of the Pakistani military’s support of extremist groups in both their countries.

Eventually a newly amalgamated Pakistani Taliban turned on their former patrons in the government.

Despite this, Pakistan continued to support the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani group, and the LeT, and the political leadership in the US continued to enrich a militarist dictatorship that fanned the flames of extremism at the cost of thousands of Asian and American lives.

A new approach

Since Bush’s final year in power, freed from the baleful influence of Donald Rumsfeld, the US has taken a much firmer line with Pakistan’s military calling its bluff by acting more directly against extremists, and demanding ever greater accountability (for example the Kerry-Lugar bill) for the billions in assistance poured into Pakistan.

However these measures were totally inadequate for the stew of militarism, illiteracy, and bad governance.

The Arab Spring has eroded many of the conventional assumptions about the relationship between dictators, Islamists and the West.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, we heard dictators playing the Islamist card for three decades “support us unless you want the terrorists to win”.

The reality has been quite different. Dictators from Musharraf to Mubarak have relied on terrorists and extremists to bring in the US aid they so desperately need to survive.

In the case of the Pakistani Army, they have been only too happy to feed the hand that bites them.

Musharraf, having worn out the patience of both the Pakistani public and his US patrons was finally forced out in August 2008.

He has been replaced with a weak civilian government that has served as little more than a useful facade for an army that remains addicted to both jihad and US money.

It is a stark warning of what the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt can turn in to unless people remain vigilant.

Today, the US continues to lavishly fund the Pakistani military, while using drones and secret soldiers such as Raymond Davis to attack the extremist forces that the same regime supports. It is up to the US to stop feeding the beast.

Leila Hudson is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies, Anthropology and History and director of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC) at the University of Arizona.

Johann Chacko is an MA candidate in the Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Arizona and a SISMEC Research Assistant who has worked in the private sector as an open source analyst of military conflicts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.