Islamabad is livid. Not surprisingly, reactions to the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden have been quite emphatic in their condemnation of a breach of Pakistani sovereignty. Former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi went so far as to say that President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani should resign because the raid represented a failure of government. While Qureshi is no longer a cabinet member, he is thought to be close to the military and his comments thus reflect that institution’s thinking, according to the Washington Post. The confrontational tone is indicative of an establishment in turmoil. Not everyone is convinced the United States is a trustworthy or desirable ally, and Qureshi’s statements could be seen as an attempt at sabotaging the relationship.
The government responded to these outcries, but not by defending the raid. Instead, it joined in the chorus complaining about unilateral U.S. actions and offered up some very tough language for Pakistan’s ally. A senior government source said on Sunday that Gilani would deliver a tough message during an address on Monday: “We’ll take appropriate action if any further violation takes place. We will defend our air space by any means we have.”
When the time came to give the address on Monday, Gilani appeared to be walking back some of the rhetoric, in particular the talk of direct conflict. To further dampen the aggressive tone from Sunday, Gilani stressed that despite differences, “”[Pakistan and the United States] have a strategic partnership that we believe is in our mutual interest.” However, he maintained that the raid was a clear breach of sovereignty, and that Pakistan is not to blame for bin Laden finding shelter in Abbottabad. Gilani was mad, but looked unsure of how far he should take it.
Further confusing the message from Islamabad was the intended outing of the CIA station chief in Islamabad by Pakistani media. Though the name turned out to be incorrect, such an action is sure to strain relations. It has only been six months since the last station chief was outed in Pakistan, and few doubt that this was the work of the ISI. If the intelligence agency was behind the latest attempt too, which is probable, the military is playing a high-stakes game with the U.S. relationship. Either it wants to end it, or it is trying to leverage more concessions out of the United States—probably related to the covert U.S. operations in the tribal areas.
The outing, and its implications, came in stark contrast to attempts at putting out diplomatic fires by the Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani. For quite some time, and especially the last week, Haqqani has attempted to salvage what is left of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership. Though he has dismissed allegations that Pakistan as a state was complicit in hiding bin Laden, he has promised that the government will investigate how the terrorist leader managed to stay hidden in the country for so long:
“Heads will roll once the investigation has been completed,” Haqqani said. “Now if those heads are rolled on account of incompetence, we will share that information with you, and if, God forbid, somebody’s complicity is discovered, there will be zero tolerance for that as well.”
Strangely enough, Haqqani’s efforts are not limited to reassuring U.S. allies. The ambassador tweeted a cryptic message on Sunday: “Msg 4 sum1 who lost his portfolio not long ago: stop lying abt Pres Zardari & PM Gilani or sum1 will B forced 2 tell truth abt u.” Shortly thereafter, Haqqani indirectly confirmed that the tweet was directed at Qureshi, and further cemented the impression that factions within the Pakistani establishment are in violent disagreement. Haqqani seems to be on the side trying to temper Pakistani reactions to the bin Laden raid.
During the Raymond Davis crisis, people within the government were trying to avoid a meltdown with the United States. This appears to be the case now as well, with some conciliatory messages coming out of Islamabad. According to a U.S. official, Pakistan will allow access to bin Laden’s three wives, which will no doubt be seen by the White House as a sign that Islamabad is not ready to end the relationship.
The harsh, but not irreconcilable, tone from Pakistan could be explained by Declan Walsh’s latest revelation in the Guardian. According to both U.S. and Pakistani officials, the two countries struck a deal in 2001 that the United States would be allowed to conduct unilateral raid in Pakistan in search of Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, the two countries also agreed that in the aftermath of such a raid, “Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion.” While the current Pakistani government might not feel beholden to a deal struck by former dictator Pervez Musharraf (who denies the existence of such an agreement), the deal illustrates the dilemma in which the Pakistan’s military and political establishment is trapped. It is wholly dependent on U.S. aid, especially so-called military reimbursement, yet must keep the Pakistani public happy and convinced of its country’s independence from the United States. As such, Gilani’s tough language seems meant for public consumption as much as diplomatic posturing. Should the impression of a Pakistan subjugated to U.S. politics continue to fester, it would destroy the legitimacy of an already frail government.
While there is not much known about the behind-the-scenes dealings in Pakistan at this time, the debacle of the bin Laden raid seems to have brought to the surface tensions within the establishment. Divisions could be between the civilian government and the military, or between factions in the civilian government. In a country so dominated by the military, there has always been an uneasy relationship between the civilians and the brass. The civilian government must be careful as to not provoke a military intervention, while the generals appear loathsome to once again take center stage. They might run things from behind the curtain, in particular security policies, but being directly in charge is messy and it risks the military being held accountable by the public.
Fundamentally, the differences within the establishment stem from desperation. These factions fight over control because there is so little of it. Fear is a great driver of policy in Pakistan, and historically the people have instilled its faith in the power of the military to keep the country together and India at bay. But the rise of domestic terrorism in Pakistan has caused great problems for the establishment in that it threatens the very legitimacy of the security institutions. It has served to highlight flaws in the military’s argument, because the wave of suicide bombings shows a security apparatus that is not in control.
The dichotomous argument over the past week has been that Pakistan is either complicit in hiding Osama bin Laden, and to a larger extent supporting terrorism, or entirely incompetent at handling its own security. Mosharraf Zaidi posits a different hypothesis—that the reality is a combination of sorts:
Pockets of support [for terrorism] in state and society notwithstanding, the problem here is capacity, not some grand conspiracy by the Pakistani state. The ISI and Pakistani state simply don’t have the capacity to cook up the greatest single plan for world domination in human history. Instead, it is almost assuredly the case that the state in Pakistan has not quite in fact lost all its moral marbles. Parts of Pakistan have lost some of their moral marbles, and other parts are not catching up fast enough to cover up the breaches and make up the numbers.
Here might lie the explanation as to why the Pakistani establishment seems to be in such disagreement—not to mention confusion—over the bin Laden affair. It cannot agree on what it wants because it cannot agree on what it needs. Individuals such as Haqqani seem to acknowledge the fact that Pakistan, to a certain degree, is dependent on the partnership with the United States, and therefore tempers must be tamed. Qurashi, on the other hand, seems ready to bite the hand that feeds. So, while both sides might agree that the raid was a breach of sovereignty, they can’t agree on how upset they should get.