Main Site         

Killing Osama bin Laden may well have been the easy bit

2011 June 3
by Paul Vallely

Killing Osama bin Laden may well have been the easy bit. Unless you count the armchair moralising. It was an act of justice, said David Cameron; it was an act of vengeance, said the Bishop of Winchester. Of course it was neither; it was an act of war, and war is, de facto, a spectacular acknowledgement that the civilised process has broken down.

Such easy opinions are of no consequence, until they touch the real world. A common liberal reaction to the death of bin Laden was to say that it beggared belief that the world’s most wanted man could have been living 800 yards from Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst for five years without someone high-up in the military, intelligence or political establishment in Islamabad knowing. Clear proof, as Mr Cameron once put it, that Pakistan “looks both ways” on jihadist terrorism. We should therefore cut our aid to the country in protest.

If only life were so simple. Certainly the West gives Pakistan huge amounts of aid. The Americans fund its Army to the tune of $2bn a year, plus another £7bn for civilian projects. Pakistan is to become the biggest recipient of British aid by 2015, with its allocation more than doubling to £446m a year, under the review the Tory Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell announced this year. Yet all that is because of, rather than despite, the double game Pakistan is playing on Islamic extremism.

Why? For a start the West needs Pakistani support in Afghanistan. That is particularly so if Washington is to begin withdrawing US troops, as it would like, from Afghanistan this summer. A number of paradoxes are at play here. There may be ambivalence towards Islamic extremists in Pakistan but 30,000 Pakistani civilians and more than 3000 soldiers have lost their lives combating the Pakistani equivalent of the Taliban. Under pressure from the United States, the Pakistani Army have over the last two years carried out counterinsurgency offensives in Swat and South Waziristan, the mountainous tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan. Yet the Pakistanis are also angry at the US use of drone strikes over their territory.

But there is ambivalence in Washington too. Under America’s liberal Leahy Amendment, the United States is obliged to cut off aid to foreign militaries which have committed gross violations of human rights. There have been moves to stop financing certain elements in the Pakistani Army that have killed unarmed detainees and their civilian sympathizers in revenge for attacks on military and police outposts. The army chief General Kayani, the most powerful man in Pakistan, has assisted Washington in that.

But Pakistani military leaders at the same time back a network of militants known as the Haqqani, a largely independent Afghan Taliban faction with bases in  North Waziristan, just across the border from Afghanistan, who are one of Nato’s deadliest foes. Pakistani intelligence links to the network date back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the Haqqani  were also supported by Washington. The Pakistan army has consistently refused US requests to now clean up North Waziristan. It sees the Haqqani as a vital bulwark against India increasing its influence in Afghanistan after the Americans leave. An Afghanistan cleansed of the Taliban would be an Indian client state, they fear.

The other problem is that Pakistan’s military, intelligence and civilian authorities are all divided on the extent to which it is India, Islamic extremism or US imperialism which is the real enemy. Jockeying between the factions explains much of the brinkmanship among the generals, spymasters and politicians who look both ways towards al-Qa’ida and Washington, and who know they could fall victim to either tomorrow.

All this matters for two reasons. First Pakistan has nuclear weapons so it is a far greater prize for both sides than is arid Afghanistan. And second, there is a frail democracy in Islamabad which the West needs to strengthen in a country that has long lived under military regimes. The civilian government is in a perilous state, with its ruling coalition fragmenting, its economy in turmoil over fuel price increases and the IMF knocking on the door, not to mention the damage wrought by last summer’s floods and the campaign of suicide bombings by the homegrown Taliban. Suggestions by bien pensant liberals that the West should now cut aid and support are singularly badly-timed. They would push Washington back to the bad old policies of abandoning a weak civilian government in favour of a military strongman.

There is no doubt that the civilian government needs to be persuaded to do more to assert democratic values like tackling corruption, building a modern taxation system and reforming the blasphemy laws.  But withdrawing British aid intended to strengthen an education system – in a country where almost half the children under nine don’t go to school – is not the answer. Our money will over the next four years buy six million text-books, train 90,000 teachers, build or refurbish 8,000 schools and get an extra four million children into classrooms. Improving education is the way to make youngsters less vulnerable to becoming radicalised. Now is not the time to withdraw the carrot and wave the stick.

And this is just Pakistan. The death of bin Laden will have repercussions in Afghanistan too, where opening talks between the White House and the Taliban can now be done with fewer suggestions of weakness than before. The impact will ripple through the complex politics of Somalia and Yemen too, as well as the countries of the Arab awakening and those where the democratic conscience appears yet dormant. The armchair moralisers need to better inform themselves on such complexities before they opine with such ease.

Comments are closed.