It is saddled with a feckless government, dogged by poverty and corruption and now, with the revelation that the world’s most-wanted man was holed up in its backyard, Pakistan looks more like a failed state than ever.
Pressed into an alliance with the United States in its “war on terror” days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, nuclear-armed Pakistan has never been able to shake off doubts about its commitment to the battle against Islamist militancy.
When U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in a dramatic helicopter raid on Monday, it turned out that — contrary to popular imagination — the al Qaeda leader had not been hiding in a mountain cave along the violence-plagued border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, an area U.S. President Barack Obama once described as “the most dangerous place in the world.”
He had in fact been living in a respectable townhouse a two-hour drive up the road from Islamabad and a short walk from a military academy that counts among its alumni the army chief.
The government denies it knew where bin Laden was, but for many the discovery will only confirms Pakistan’s reputation as “al Qaeda central.”
“Pakistan is truly at the epicentre of global terrorism,” Lisa Curtis, senior researcher on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in a paper on bin Laden’s killing.
The suspicion that Pakistani security agents might have been playing a double game, shielding bin Laden from the world’s biggest manhunt have led to calls for punishment.
“Perhaps the time has come to declare it a terrorist state and expel it from the comity of nations,” British-Indian author Salman Rushdie wrote of Pakistan in a column this week.
PROBLEMS FROM BIRTH OF THE NATION
Pakistan is beset by a host of problems, some of which have bedevilled it since the bloody partition of British-ruled India and its independence in 1947 as a home for South Asia’s Muslims.
Its economy is propped up with an International Monetary Fund loan and about a third of its people live in poverty.
Levels of literacy and education are dire, especially for women. So-called ghost schools, with no teachers or children and corrupt officials pocketing the budget, are rife.
Violent religious conservatism is becoming more mainstream: this year alone two senior officials have been assassinated for challenging a law the stipulates death for insulting Islam.
Pakistan’s population — at 170 million the world’s sixth-largest — is growing at more than 2 percent a year. The threat of environmental catastrophe such as water shortages, especially in the longer term when glaciers melt in the Himalayas and rivers run dry, raise a nightmare scenario of deprivation.
All the while, a venal elite defends its privileges, squabbling politicians enrich themselves and the army, which has ruled for more than half of the country’s 64-year history, looms over public life with the prospect of intervention a constant.
But it is the cocktail of Islamist militants and nuclear weapons that raises the biggest fears around the world.
Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, days after arch-rival India conducted tests, and it now has what experts believe is the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal with about 80 bombs, material for scores more, and a range of missiles to deliver them.
Former CIA official Bruce Riedel wrote in a piece in the Wall Street Journal last month that Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear warheads is on track to become the fourth-largest in the world by the end of the decade, behind only the United States, Russia and China.
Compounding fears of what its enemies see as a loose-cannon nuclear power, the father of the Pakistani bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, confessed in 2004 to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Khan was pardoned by the government, although placed under house arrest for five years, leading to suspicions of official complicity in the world’s most serious proliferation scandal.
The government and military denied any involvement in the proliferation ring and they regularly reject concern over the security of the country’s nuclear weapons programme.
At the heart of many of Pakistan’s woes, and its support over three decades for Islamist militants, is its rivalry with India. The two countries have gone to war three times since their partition after World War Two.
Pakistan, along with the United States and Saudi Arabia, nurtured the Islamist fighters, including bin Laden, who drove Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Since its creation, Pakistan has seen a friendly Afghanistan — into which its forces could withdraw in the event of an invasion by a much bigger Indian army — as a central plank of national security.
That, too, was the reason for its support of the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s: the perceived necessity of a friendly, ethnic Pashtun-dominated Taliban government in Kabul rather than one led by pro-Indian north Afghan factions.
Even today, nearly 10 years after signing up to the U.S. campaign against militancy, Pakistan is refusing to move against Taliban factions based on its side of the border because of its fear of an Indian-dominated Afghanistan.
Similarly, Pakistan for years nurtured militants fighting Indian forces in its part of the Kashmir region, the source of most bitterness between the neighbours since their independence.
It is conceivable that bin Laden was protected by Pakistan’s security service, not because of any support for his vision of global holy war, but because bin Laden might have been seen as a valuable asset, like an ace to play, in the event of a show-down with India.
All this does not necessarily mean the country is failing, said Pakistani security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
“Pakistan can’t be described as a terrorist state. The problem is that there are people who are sympathetic to militants,” he said.
“The state of mind that has been created in Pakistan is a problem and the military has a role in it but Pakistan has the capacity to overcome this.”
Pakistan’s role in bin Laden’s killing remains murky.
The United States has hinted at Pakistani help in tracking bin Laden down, but said the country’s security agencies were kept in the dark about the operation to kill him because of fear the al Qaeda leader would have been tipped off.
Pakistan has given similar mixed signals, denying knowledge of the raid but saying Pakistan’s main security agency had been passing on information to the CIA about the bin Laden compound since 2009.
Pakistani political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi said both Islamabad and Washington appeared to be making a coordinated effort to create the impression Pakistan was kept in the dark.
That would provide Pakistan with “plausible deniability” in the event of a public backlash over bin Laden’s killing.
“That bin Laden was alive and well till May 1 because the Pakistanis were helping him, and that he is dead and buried, because the Pakistanis helped kill him – both can be simultaneously true. And they probably are,” Zaidi wrote in an commentary this week.
The full truth may never be known but, for now at least, the United States needs Pakistan’s help to bring the Afghan war to some sort of conclusion as it heads towards the start of a troop drawdown this summer.
Let alone its influence over the Taliban, Pakistan is the conduit for a large volume of supplies going to U.S. forces in landlocked Afghanistan — from drinking water to food and fuel.
In the event of a complete breakdown in relations with the United States over bin Laden, which looks unlikely, Pakistan can always count on fair-weather ally China for support.
And despite the predictions of its imminent implosion, Pakistan will probably muddle through this crisis, as it has every other crisis since its formation.
There’s even cause for some hope after the dust settles from bin Laden’s killing.
Talks with India are back on, though no breakthroughs are expected, and a government that has been in power since 2008 has bolstered its position with a new coalition partner and could become Pakistan’s first-ever civilian government to complete a full term.
Despite signs of growing intolerance in society, there is at least some hope that the security agencies, locked in a bloody struggle with Pakistani Taliban militants, are beginning to realise the danger of courting extremism.
“It will take some doing to dismantle it,” Zaidi said of Pakistan’s militant infrastructure, or “second-line of defence” against India.
“Religious zeal was easy to inject into the Pakistani bloodstream, it will be difficult to extract. The process cannot and must not be rushed.”
Rizvi said the security establishment had to decide whether militants would be given free rein or suppressed.
“The future of Pakistan, honestly speaking, is to me uncertain. But in my opinion, Pakistan will neither be declared a failed state or a terrorist state. It is a state mired in difficulties and problems.”