What's Next for Pakistan?

The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces will no doubt bring closure to many throughout the world who’ve lost loved ones to al-Qaeda’s terror campaign. But far from signaling the end of the battle for supremacy in South Asia, bin Laden’s demise only marks the end of the beginning. The United States reportedly launched the attack on bin Laden’s luxury Pakistani hideaway without informing the Pakistani authorities. The failure to gain prior consent lays bare the lack of trust which has characterized relations between Islamabad and Washington since the beginning of the War on Terror.

Speculation has been rife for years that Pakistan has been playing a double game with the West – posing as a cooperative ally in the war in neighboring Afghanistan while secretly aiding the Afghan Taliban which gave bin Laden sanctuary. Classified US documents posted online by Wikileaks repeatedly accuse the ISI, Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency, of supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Not surprisingly, Islamabad has vigorously denied all charges that it has or continues to help the Afghan Taliban, often citing its own fight against the Pakistani Taliban; a bogus comparison in my view given that the Pakistani Taliban is committed to the destruction of the government in Islamabad as opposed to the ouster of the US-led coalition from Afghanistan. Moreover, the location, scale and opulence of the compound where bin Laden met his end would seem to suggest that there are at the very least powerful elements in Pakistan’s establishment sympathetic if not supportive of al-Qaeda’s war against the West. The secured, luxury villa worth a reported $1 million was built five years ago in Abbottabad, an affluent garrison town firmly under the control of Pakistan’s military elite and home to its main military academy.

The fact that bin Laden was hunted down and killed just a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s version of West Point puts Islamabad between a rock and hard place. It is doubtful the civilian-led Pakistani government has the power to clean house and ruthlessly weed out Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters in the military and security services without inviting a coup. And if they throw their hands up and claim that they had no idea bin Laden was living comfortably right under their noses, it will completely undermine claims that Islamabad can prevent terrorists from doing as they like in the country– including exploiting Pakistan’s most precious military asset; its nuclear arsenal.

For years, Islamabad has refused to allow outside observers to check the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, stating it will never allow any country to have direct or indirect access to its nuclear facilities. Whether Islamabad pleads ignorance on sheltering bin Laden or starts purging its military and security services of al-Qaeda sympathizers, it will be very difficult now for Pakistan to resist US offers to help secure its nuclear assets (especially if the US secures the backing of the United Nations for such a plan).

If the US can get its foot in Pakistan’s proverbial nuclear door, it will be the ultimate game changer. Contrary to popular belief, the US and Britain are not Pakistan’s most treasured allies. It’s China (not only have I blogged frequently about this strategic relationship over the past year; it serves as the backdrop for my forthcoming novel, The Good Jihadist). China has huge influence with Islamabad; selling Pakistan arms and investing billions in developing natural resources and energy routes through the country including highways and a strategically important port in Gwadar, Baluchistan.

The Sino-Pakistani nexus is not just commercially beneficial to both parties. By serving as a direct energy conduit between oil rich Gulf nations and Western China, Pakistan is vital to Beijing’s future security. In turn, Beijing offers Islamabad a powerful buffer against its most bitter enemy, India (whose nuclear ambitions are currently being supported by the US).

Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistan’s prime minister was attempting to cut the US out of Afghanistan’s future by reportedly urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to forget about a long-term US military presence in his country and instead embrace Pakistan and China as allies. The article went on to quote unnamed US officials, saying that ‘the idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan was fanciful at best.’

Anyone who has been following China’s commercial progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan knows full well that Beijing is in a prime position to be the hegemonic power in the region. But by finally killing bin Laden, the United States has shown it is not about to abandon South Asia to forces beyond its control.

---Bob Shepherd