Since the shocking discovery (and subsequent) assassination of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in early May in a compound in Pakistan, rumors have swirled that authorities in Islamabad have been harboring and protecting the world’s most wanted man all these years.
But why? Why would Pakistan take such a huge risk, given that they have been dependent on billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. – ostensibly to help fight terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
International Business Times spoke with Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., about Pakistan and its twisted relationships with the U.S. and terrorists.
IBTIMES: Suspicions are growing that the Pakistani intelligence network or its military had been protecting Osama bin Laden (and other terrorists) for years, while the Islamabad government has pretended to support U.S. efforts against terrorism. But, considering the huge amount of financial aid that Pakistan receives from the U.S., why would any Pakistani official seek to harbor and protect terrorists and militants? What could they possibly gain from this?
ACHILOV: At the very minimum level, bin Laden appeared to have access to some level of institutional support within Pakistan. It is highly improbable that ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) – the Pakistani intelligence agency - was completely uninformed of bin Laden’s whereabouts up to this time. But it would be naïve to expect the Pakistani officials to ever accept these charges. Any official acknowledgement (or confirmation) would be political suicide for Pakistan in the international arena.
The CIA and ISI do not trust one another. The U.S. does not share all intelligence information with Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan often conceals critical information from the CIA. This is not unusual for spy agencies to act this way.
We should not forget the historical roots of the present day Taliban/Al-Qaeda dilemma. Let’s recall the historical facts that shed light into the present. We know that both the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI helped create the Taliban militia forces to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the [latter stages of the] Cold War.
The U.S. National Security Advisor of former President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, met with bin Laden during his visit to Afghanistan in 1979. They even posed for a picture which substantiates how important bin Laden was for U.S. interests in the late 1970s.
When the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, the army of 100,000-plus well-armed and well trained Taliban mujahedeen still remained. In 2010, speaking to congressional members, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton acknowledged: “Let’s remember here, the people we are fighting today we funded 20 years ago.”
Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, also echoed this reality: “I think it was part of your past [U.S.A] and our past, and the ISI and the CIA created them [the Taliban] together.” Those trainees today establish that the core of the present-day Taliban supported the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is analogous to Hollywood movies in which scientists invent “benevolent” robots, but then those creatures go rogue and turn back to fight and destroy their own creators.
IBTIMES: Assuming bin Laden has little money to offer his Pakistani benefactors, what would they have wanted from him in exchange for harboring him?
ACHILOV: It seems that Pakistan wants to keep the agenda of Taliban and Al-Qaeda active in order to keep receiving funding from the West; use it (if necessary) to leverage against the U.S. support for its arch-rival India and maintain its influence on Afghanistan.
Naturally, each side (the U.S. and Pakistan) may want to have a “power card” for a possible future rainy day. For instance, the U.S. has been developing strong ties with India (including the areas of nuclear technology) which irritates Pakistan. In this light, if the U.S. ever chooses to use its “India” card, Pakistan wants to have its “Taliban” card handy.
IBTIMES: Pakistan’s Taliban have been targeting and killing Pakistani government and military personnel almost weekly. Would this not suggest that the Pakistani government has no ties to the Taliban at least?
ACHILOV: The Pakistani government is in an awkward situation. I would not say that Pakistan is protecting terrorist militants because the militants also target Pakistani regime as well. Pakistan does not control Al-Qaeda nor does it have competency (nor a steadfast “will”) to fully eradicate the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda network inside the country.
I think Pakistan is trying to use all its “cards” for its maximum benefit. Even though Pakistan and the U.S. are seemingly “allies”, they are highly skeptical of one another. In short, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship does not stand on firm collaborative grounds. Rather, the relationship stands on the principle of strategic business agreement.
More precisely: the U.S. gives money; Pakistan, in return, provides access for U.S. operations inside the country to oversee the war efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants and needs funds from the U.S. to help fund its social programs. The amount of aid is not negligible for Pakistan to bypass.
IBTIMES: Is it possible that senior government officials (i.e., civilians) were kept in the dark about bin Laden all these years, suggesting that the military really rules Pakistan?
ACHILOV: Without a doubt, the Pakistani military is the most powerful institution in the country. The generals have overwhelming influence on domestic policy-making and over Pakistan’s political elites. It is possible that the senior administration was kept in the dark by the ISI or were kept out of the “true context” of the matter involving bin Laden. Senior government officials cannot work independently from the military security apparatus. Acting without military’s consultation or consent could be detrimental for an incumbent regime.
IBTIMES: Even if U.S. officials do not trust Pakistan, aren't they stuck because they need Pakistan as a supply route for Western troops into Afghanistan?
ACHILOV: Yes, supply routes are essential for NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, U.S. interests in Pakistan run deeper than just a gateway to Afghanistan. Pakistan is the only nuclear power in the Islamic world. At the same time, Pakistan has become a hot-spot for radical extremist networks that operate, recruit and train their members.
It is imperative that the Pakistani regime stays stable and the nuclear arsenal is kept under control.
IBTIMES: In the unlikely event that Pakistan loses U.S. aid and support, would Islamabad turn to China for more aid?
ACHILOV: In the event that the U.S. cuts its ties and financial aid, it is more likely that Pakistan will align itself with China, Russia and even Iran. But I doubt that the U.S. will abandon Pakistan even if Pakistan’s involvement in harboring bin Laden is proven with hard evidence. In that case, it would be more practical to blame everything on the administration (regime security elites) and support a new administration which can continue to work with the United States.
For Washington’s regional geo-strategic access and influence, Pakistan is an important state that connects Central and South Asia. Furthermore, to counter-weight against rising Chinese soft power in the region, U.S. needs Pakistan as an ally.
IBTIMES: How does Pakistan get along with the Arab Muslim world? Do the Arab states view Pakistan as Muslim brethren or do they maintain their distance since Pakistanis are not Arabs?
ACHILOV: Pakistan is predominantly Sunni Muslim. The Arab Muslim world views Pakistan as an important Muslim society in part of Global Muslim Ummah (Global Muslim Society).
In general terms, Pakistan gets along with the Arab world very well. In fact, a large majority of immigrant workers in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other oil-rich Arab states are from Pakistan. For many years, Pakistani immigrant workers found the Arab world as a major destination for jobs (though most are low-paying basic service jobs).
Being a non-Arab state has no effect on the Arab-Pakistani relationship. The Arab world is largely interested in developing deeper ties with Pakistan.
IBTIMES: What is your outlook on Pakistan’s social problems?
ACHILOV: I would argue that education is the most important aspect that can successfully eradicate the radicalism problem in the long run. The literacy rate in Pakistan is only 60 percent. This means that 40 percent of 170 million can’t read or write their names properly. This is not something that can be ignored.
The social infrastructure (including education) is in crisis. High unemployment also partly stems from poor education. In this regard, the lack of basic education for a country with a young population -- 63 percent of population is under the age of 25 -- largely explains why increasing number of youths often become prey for radical recruiters.
The bulk of the U.S. monetary aid goes to social programs such as education. From this perspective, cutting aid to Pakistan would be a major setback for Pakistan which could yield unprecedented negative effects.