Why the US-Pakistan relationship will survive bin Laden’s death

The news of the operation against Osama bin Laden was news to the authorities in Pakistan, as well as the rest of the world. AFP/Asif Hassan

The killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces on Pakistani soil has come at a time when relations between the two countries have been rather strained. Analysts point out that al-Qaida today is a diffuse and decentralised outfit, and bin Laden’s extermination is more symbolic than signifying any practical gain in the fight against the terrorist organisation and its off-shoots.

But what impact will this development have on relations between US and its most important ally in Washington’s war on terror?

Souring relations

Recent months have seen US-Pakistan relations nose-dive.

In January, a CIA contract employee called Raymond Davis was arrested for shooting and killing two Pakistani men in Lahore.

People in Pakistan were outraged, and authorities in Islamabad refused to give Davis diplomatic immunity, much to the Obama administration’s fury. The US suspended all high-level dialogue with Pakistan over the issue.

Prior to the incident, there was already simmering anger and resentment in Pakistan over covert CIA operations in the country and the use of unmanned drones by the US in the tribal areas in Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan. A continuing complaint has been that authorities in Islamabad are regularly left out of the intelligence loop by counterparts in Washington.

Davis was released after almost 10 weeks in jail in Lahore. Public sentiments in Pakistan were further incensed and people took to the streets to protest the release.

Both sides weighed the significant damage caused to bilateral relations over the incident. The mood in official circles remained tense, and some in Islamabad called upon the US to cut back sharply the number of drone attacks.

Others argued that the “fundamentals” of Pakistan’s relations with the US needed to be revisited - that Pakistan should to be treated as a strategic partner and respected ally, and not a “client state”.

The US on its part has been increasingly doubtful of the reliability of Pakistani authorities in the fight against militant groups operating out of the country. It has become particularly suspicious of the country’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and on a recent visit to Islamabad, the US military’s top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen accused the agency of having links with the Haqqani Network – a militant group which he claimed has been “supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners” in Afghanistan.

Since 9/11, senior Pakistani officials have consistently and vehemently denied any links with al-Qaida and its off-shoots in the region. Leaders such as Musharraf, Zardari, Gilani and army chief Kayani have always dismissed outright the notion that bin Laden might be living somewhere in Pakistan.

Bin Laden blow

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The US military had been planning the strike since August of last year. AFP/DoD

The news of bin Laden being killed on Pakistani soil, in a town which hosts the Pakistani Military Academy, around 35 miles from the country’s capital has dealt a huge blow to the credibility of the Pakistani establishment.

As details of the operation emerged, it became clear that bin Laden was hiding in a custom-built hideout well within the military cantonment area in Abbottabad.

In his televised address to the US on Sunday night, Obama duly praised Pakistan for its “close counter-terrorism co-operation.” US authorities did not inform the Pakistani government of their plan to capture or kill bin Laden until the attack had already taken place.

President Asif Ali Zardari has also now confirmed that this was not a joint operation. He insists however that bin Laden’s elimination is the result of “a decade of cooperation and partnership” between the two sides.

Several questions remains unanswered however. How did bin Laden get to Abbottabad? How long had he been living there? There are some suggestions now that he may have been living there since 2005. How long had the ISI known about his presence in town? The idea that bin Laden had been living in the cantonment area without the knowledge of the Pakistani army and the ISI seems quite hard to digest.

The aftermath

The US-Pakistan relationship is like an uneasy marriage. Despite mutual feelings of hostility and distrust, each seems somewhat anxious to hold on to the other. The financial and strategic costs of allowing the relationship to come completely undone are simply too high.

For Pakistan, a country practically on its knees financially, the relationship means billions of dollars in civilian aid, counter-insurgency funds and military reimbursements. Since 9/11, the US Congress has allocated around US$20 billion in aid to Pakistan.

Already within US Congressional circles, there are threats to block this aid as a response to Islamabad’s failure over bin Laden.

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Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai need the support of Asif Ali Zardari in the fight against terrorism. EPA/Pete Souza

For Washington, Islamabad remains a key ally in South Asia in its fight against al-Qaida operatives and the Taliban. Brennan on Monday stated that it was “inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system” in Pakistan. At the same time, he and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pressed Pakistan’s importance as a vital US ally and the continuing need for close cooperation between the two countries.

There is little doubt that in the days to come, the US will tighten the pressure on Pakistani authorities to “do more”.

Even if evidence emerges of elements in the Pakistani establishment being aware of bin Laden being holed up in what is practically the military’s backyard, the US is unlikely to take too harsh a position towards Pakistan.

Obama is looking to an exit from Afghanistan in 2014. Minus Pakistan’s support in its operations to stabilise the ravaged country, the US cannot beat a hasty retreat without the risk of its goals there unravelling - even with bin Laden’s scalp in its bag.