It is reasonably widely accepted that Osama bin Laden was able to stay in the Pakistan town of Abbottabad because he had the protection of Pakistan’s military, in particular its powerful Inter Services Intelligence organisation. It would have been all but impossible for bin Laden to have stayed in one place in Pakistan without the ISI knowing, implying it at least tolerated his presence. More likely, the ISI’s involvement was more active than mere tolerance.
The question is, then, no longer whether bin Laden had the active support of the ISI but why Pakistan’s premier intelligence organisation – from a country which is long-time ally of the United States – would host the US’s number one enemy on its soil. At risk is not just the defence relationship with the US but, more importantly, the major strategic deterrent to Pakistan’s principle enemy, India. It also risks the important, $7.5 billion, US aid budget to Pakistan.
The answer, in short, is that Pakistan needs to retain a strong alliance with Afghanistan, no matter who is in power, more than it needs the US. Pakistan did an assessment of its medium and longer term relationship with the US when the US decided, as the head of a coalition, to invade Afghanistan.
Having closely watched – and participated in – Afghanistan’s resistance to the earlier Soviet invasion, there was a keen awareness of the US-led coalition’s likely chances of success. They were deemed to be zero in the long term and events appear to be proving that assessment to be correct.
Pakistan is much less concerned by a Taliban-led government, with which it previously had a functional relationship, and is much more concerned about India’s longer-term intentions. India and Pakistan have had numerous armed conflicts and been openly at war with each other three times (1947, 1965, 1971), a fourth time undeclared (1999).
While India would be very careful to go to war with the nuclear-armed Pakistan again, continuing tensions keep that possibility alive. Pakistan then needs to consider its options if such an invasion comes to pass.
In the first instance, Pakistan does not want to alienate Afghanistan, notably if the Taliban is again in power, or if it is part of an increasingly likely coalition or power-sharing arrangement. An alienated Afghanistan could, under India’s considerable influence, ally itself and trap Pakistan in the middle.
Conversely, should India and Afghanistan go to war again, Pakistani forces would likely fare poorly against the numerically much larger Indian forces and would need to be able to retreat. Being able to retreat into the frontier lands that have as much or more affinity with Afghanistan than Pakistan would become necessary. It is even possible that Pakistani forces might need to retreat into Afghanistan proper. For that to happen, Pakistan would require good, reliable friends across the border.
So, understanding that it was always a question of ‘when’ the US would leave Afghanistan, not ‘if’ it would do so, Pakistan has looked to its longer term strategic future. Hence its tacit support for the Taliban, if not the Islamist forces within its own territory that threaten to make the state ungovernable in current terms.
Following on from this, Pakistan offered its protection to bin Laden on the condition that he kept his presence as quiet as possible, to maintain good relations with both sides in the Afghanistan war – especially the likely winner. However, bin Laden’s network was eventually cracked, tracked and attacked.
Pakistan, of course, looks stupid in this. On one hand it territorial sovereignty has been deeply compromised. But then, this has also been the case with the use of un-manned drones to attack Taliban bases within Pakistan. Perhaps the difference here is whether actual people are inside Pakistani territory. But even that is difficult to sustain. In any case, many Pakistanis, not averse to Islamism, are deeply angry with both the US and their own government.
On the other hand, if the ISI did not know that bin Laden was safely ensconced on their territory, it looks profoundly incompetent. The ISI might have a number of gaps in its operations, but knowing what is going on within its territory is not among them. So it now has to play especially dumb, looking quite incompetent when it has not been so.
As noted, India is unlikely to invade Pakistan knowing it has a nuclear arsenal amongst the largest handful in the world. But a covert war, fought by proxies, has been the state of play between the two countries more or less incessantly and this could escalate quite considerably.
In the meantime, the US will be hoping to retain what is left of its relationship with Pakistan while it continues to have troops in Afghanistan. But one might reasonably assume that, following the draw-down of troops scheduled for 2014, Pakistan will start to look very much less important.
At such a time (and probably starting now, in reality), the US could start looking at India in a much more favourable light. The old stand-off with India when it was an ally of the USSR have long since disappeared and, as a quickly growing capitalist economy of more than a billion people, India not only starts to look like a more reliable partner but it just happens to make a convenient regional ally in the more and more lively cat and mouse game between the US and China.
Bin Laden is dead and Afghanistan is quickly receding as a strategic priority for the US. The real game, as it was prior to 11 September 2001, is China. Pakistan, inconveniently, is a friend of China. The world of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ does not bode well for longer term Pakistan-US relations.