Osama’s ghost and Zia’s

Pakistan’s security establishment has a few tough questions to answer.

Osama bin Laden’s capture from the garrison town of Abbottabad,just a couple of hours drive from the capital city of Islamabad,is extremely scandalous. This is a story that means different things for different people and organisations. While it will bring accolades to Barack Obama and the CIA,fargreater questions will be asked about the will of Pakistan’s security establishment in fighting the war on terror. Many in Pakistan find it hard to believe that the ISI,which sniffs around all places and keeps a close watch on ordinary citizens,could not have detected bin Laden in a place quite close to the army’s primary training academy,the Pakistan Military Academy,Kakul.

Pakistan’s foreign office issued a bland statement confirming nothing more than general cooperation with the US in fighting the war on terror. Media reports also emphasise that the military operation was more American than Pakistani. Indubitably,there would have been some tactical cooperation from GHQ Rawalpindi; without that the US might not have been able to conduct its “kill bin Laden” operation. It is possible that some arrangement might have been worked out between the two militaries in a bid to sort out their bilateral tensions. After all,Pakistan has always helped catch al-Qaeda operatives when under immense pressure from Washington.

We would not be told exactly how deep the Pakistan’s military’s involvement went,given the fear of repercussions. The local al-Qaeda franchises will not take kindly to the news,and there is a fear that these forces will strike at the Pakistani state,especially if they suspect any involvement. And there are people inside the security establishment and in society at large who are sympathetic to jihad and to organisations such as al-Qaeda.

Indeed,the death of bin Laden is just an event and not the end of a trend in Pakistan and the region. In fact,Osama’s death has an uncanny resemblance to General Zia-ul-Haq’s death on August 17,1988 — it was hard to believe that the man had died. We in Pakistan had lived for so long with General Zia; and now with bin Laden,that it will take a while before the reality begins to sink in. In fact,the pro-jihad media outlets,anchors and commentators did not wait long before they started spewing venom against the US and calling this some big conspiracy.

There are many who have begun to cast doubts on the story. Then there are others who have started to raise concerns about US secret operations inside the country and so close to the national capital. One such journalist got fairly offensive when I reminded her that a more credible question for her to ask was: what does Osama bin Laden’s presence so close to Islamabad mean for Pakistan’s security?

Such a media offensive could possibly be to cushion the defence establishment from any pressure that might have arisen domestically. The ISI had always,after all,denied bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. The fact that the mansion bin Laden was living in was in a garrison city,and close to the primary military academy,reduces the possibility of lack of collaboration between al-Qaeda and the military establishment. Indeed there are whispers now: how come the ISI,which keeps tabs on everyone’s backyard,did not know about this? More doubts will be raised internally,unless the military spokesperson,Major General Athar Abbas,manages to spin some story about some rogue elements inside the ISI providing assistance to the al-Qaeda chief. The general is quite well connected in the mainstream media through his family and other personal links.

But bin Laden’s death is not necessarily the end of the era that started with Zia. The former was,in fact,part of the terror machine built by the latter during the ’80s to fight the US’s war in Afghanistan. Pakistan and the region will continue to live with bin Laden’s spectre for a long time,as they did with Zia’s; there is an abundance of Zia and bin Laden’s children.

The head of al-Qaeda was more of a symbolic figure by the time he was taken out by the US military. He was certainly not an expert on organisational details,especially those concerning the local franchising of his terror network. Organisations such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM),Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (HUJI) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) represent some of al-Qaeda’s local franchises that are more difficult to fight as they have built deep social roots. These militant networks are wiser,too,as they know how to keep a distance between themselves,their core strategy and events such as this. The coming days and months are critical,as these local al-Qaeda franchises will re-group and fight back.

Note: This article originally published here.