Scepticism about Pakistani government “ignorance” as to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden reaches to the very top of the US administration.
National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon has requested US access to bin Laden’s three widows and materials unearthed in the Abbottabad compound. President Obama himself invited Islamabad to institute a formal inquiry into bin Laden’s local support network, warning that the US will be undertaking such a fishing expedition itself. Pakistan will doubtless announce some sort of inquiry, but as the A.Q. Khan affair demonstrated, one involving minimal cooperation with the Americans, who have still not been allowed to interview the scientist who helped rogue regimes develop nuclear weapons. The saga of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis was another straw in the wind, since it revealed that the Agency has so little faith in its ISI counterparts that it created a covert parallel network of agents inside a nominally allied country.
The fact that bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad since 2005, a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s most prestigious military academy, exasperated the US administration, which therefore kept the Pakistanis in the dark about the raid. Islamabad’s claims that it knew what was occurring are belied by the fact that its air force only scrambled fighters to intercept the US helicopters after they had left Pakistan’s airspace. US-Pakistani relations have now come to a major fork in the road. The US Congress is threatening to rescind some or all of the $3 billion annual aid budget for Pakistan. Pakistan’s chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, warned that Pakistan will terminate all military and intelligence cooperation if another such raid occurs. As if to throw fat on the fire, the US launched a lethal drone strike on Taliban militants the night after bin Laden had been killed, while Donilon refused to rule out a similar Seal strike on Ayman al-Zawahiri and other surviving al-Qaeda leaders.
My own view is that Pakistan is so corrupted from top to bottom, and its elites so disconnected from anything resembling truth, that a severely pruned aid budget should be enmeshed in conditions to prevent it being embezzled. Why should Western countries chuck money they can ill afford into this swamp? Why is Britain pledging £650 million in long-term educational aid without ensuring that Islamabad does more to inhibit what are largely Pakistani-origin jihadists in our country? There is a very widespread feeling that Islamabad is perpetually taking our money as if by right and giving nothing in return.
However, US fury with a duplicitous Pakistan is constrained by awareness that America will need Islamabad’s cooperation if it is to remove its forces from Afghanistan, leaving a simulacrum of political order. That such a withdrawal is coming is reflected in the transfer to the CIA of General David Petraeus, a figure too wedded to victory via nation-building in Afghanistan for Obama to leave him in situ. The US will also have to rely on the ISI to incorporate reconciled elements of the Afghan Taliban into whatever regime is cobbled together in Kabul.
As the US dials down relations with Islamabad, the Pakistanis have only one way to turn: towards Beijing. The US just managed to stop the fancy stealth technology on the helicopter which crashed in Abbottabad being freighted to China at a price. Pakistan has been helping suppress Islamist terrorists who menace China’s western provinces, in return for significant amounts of aid. The Chinese see Pakistan as an investment opportunity and a route to the Indian Ocean, where they can counterbalance what will be a growing US challenge in the Pacific region once America has shuffled off the intractable burden of Afghanistan.
All the British latter-day T.E. Lawrences and romanticising spooks who expatiate about Pashtuns and Tajiks are going to get a shock when Obama reveals he could not care less about the place as his re-election campaign gathers pace. The US has pumped $227 billion of direct military spending into Afghanistan, propping up the corrupt Karzai regime, widely hated outside Kabul. The Afghan National Army is a joke, with an annual desertion rate of a third. With nation-building a busted flush, Obama can choose between limited counterterrorism operations to ensure remnants of al-Qaeda do not revive and disengagement, because with bin Laden’s death essential US objectives have been achieved. Moreover, any major terrorist threat to the West is more likely to come from Yemen, Somalia, Tanzania, or even Brazil and Colombia, where al-Qaeda is active, than from Afghanistan. Victory is when the winner chooses to call it.