Pakistan's Virtual Ground Zero
How could the world’s most wanted terrorist be living in the midst of army personnel in Pakistan for over 5 years? When the US has been pouring billions for years into Pakistan for a whole host of reasons how could Pakistan play a double game? If it was not a double game how ridiculously incompetent is the country’s intelligence agency? These questions just scratch the surface of a barrage of questions that Pakistan is bound to face in the weeks and months ahead.
Ever since the 9/11 strikes it has been a weather-beaten joke at Indian social gatherings that Osama bin Laden was living “happily” in Pakistan. It was common knowledge among those who follow the news carefully that President Musharraf had made it a routine practice to make a splash every few months about nabbing some terrorists in order to keep the Americans happy. The killing of Osama bin Laden confirms that the Americans have finally seen through this game (after billions of dollars!) and stopped trusting Pakistan especially when it matters most. Hats off to the Obama administration for finally learning this rather expensive lesson!
Over the years the perception that Pakistan was a safe haven for terrorists has gained momentum. The investigations following the Mumbai attacks have helped further reinforce this perception. The Indian government has repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring terrorists. Pakistan has always brushed this aside as India’s biased accusation despite clear cut evidence provided after the Mumbai attack among other well documented details. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, clearly provides further credence to this accusation. Pakistan being home to the most wanted terrorists is no longer just a perception, but a reality.
The people of Pakistan have been living in denial because they have been blinded by their deep-seated animosity towards India while this has been carefully harnessed and exploited by its politicians and its army over the years. A country that was carved out of India to serve as a homeland for Muslims has dismally failed and has been sadly left behind. Meanwhile, India has grown in leaps and bounds (relatively speaking); it has enjoyed a thriving democracy and is fast becoming a country to reckon with in the world. Pakistan on the other hand is not just a failed state but has all the notoriety of a “rogue state”. The average Pakistani is now faced with a highly corrupt political system, a weak President, an ineffective Prime Minister, an all powerful army that either has no worthy intelligence to speak off or is deeply in bed with the terrorists, and a dangerous environment where your neighbor could be a dreaded terrorist. In effect, with the killing of bin Laden in its own backyard, Pakistan has sunk to its virtual “ground zero.”
Can Pakistan recover from this quagmire or is the worst still to come?
The good news is that the US is still prepared to write billion dollar checks to Pakistan. However, after recent events these checks are going to come with some serious strings attached. The US should insist that a significant part of this aid goes to real education programs and other fundamental reform oriented long term investments. The challenge for the US would be to convince the Pakistani leadership that this aid is a long term commitment and not another opportunistic move that will die down should the US leave Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the US would in many ways attempt to exercise excessive influence (bordering on meddling in Pakistani internal affairs) in return for this aid. But Pakistan has little to chose from at this point. It is Pakistan’s opportunity to lose. Its time to come clean and “reboot.” — Stop state support for terrorists of any sort, hand-over the known terrorists to the US, improve relations with India by prosecuting or eliminating those responsible for the Mumbai attacks and expose those who sheltered Bin Laden, among other clean up acts that imply a genuine desire for a fresh start.
Most importantly, Pakistan should stop obsessing over India. To ease off on the Kashmir would be a big part of this much-needed change in mind-set. This is not in any way meant to be a justification of India’s handling of the Kashmir issue. It’s more an issue of drawing priorities for a country that is on the verge of a serious break down. The reality is that the country has far more critical issues at hand and Kashmir is at best a distraction that Pakistan can ill-afford to pursue at this point in time. When you are on a burning deck you can’t sweat over not having a cabin that isn’t large enough.
The intent is not to trivialize the challenges facing Pakistan and pretend as though there are quick fixes. But in order to extricate itself from this current situation, there has to be some definitive action that signifies a fundamental break from the past either by choice or by pressure from the US. In the long term, one can only hope that the country can transition towards a real democracy where there are elected leaders who can govern freely outside the shadow of the army. The killing of Osama bin Laden, hopefully, will spark some serious soul searching among the Pakistanis. Given the complete dearth of credible leadership at the political level perhaps a grass roots movement that would rally the masses and transform the country over the next several decades is very much in order.