The following is special to MEA:
by Brendan Wilson
The revelation that Osama bin Laden has been hiding comfortably in a compound in the military garrison town of Abbottabad has fanned the flames of suspicion about America’s ally, Pakistan. It is reasonable to question the loyalty of Pakistan when the world’s top fugitive has spent the past 5 years or so a stone’s throw away from their military academy and surrounded by retired military brass. It speaks volumes that the United States government hid the entire operation from their Pakistani counterparts for fear that it would be compromised.
The Pakistani government now finds itself on the defensive, waging a public relations campaign to control the damage. Congressman Ted Poe from Texas is set to introduce a bill that would cut US funding to Pakistan until they prove that they were not harboring bin Laden. Is Pakistan an ally, or an enemy that has been double-crossing the US this entire time?
Frankly, it is best not to use such ham-fisted generalities when trying to make sense of a frustratingly complex country that will be at the center of US geopolitical thinking for a long time to come. It is difficult to find any situation that is analogous to the one Pakistan faces. Yet the most apt comparison may come from America’s own history.
The American Civil War is the most poignant and present flashpoint in American history. It is the only war that Americans reenact on weekends. Its battlefields are in their backyards. Its casualty counts are used as points of reference for modern conflicts. One can find a documentary about it being played on cable at any time of the day. Its causes and consequences are still being played out in national politics nearly a century and a half later.
Yet, imagine if it had never happened.
It is worth a reminder that before the southern states seceded from the Union, Jefferson Davis was a Senator from Mississippi and former Secretary of War; Robert E. Lee had been the Superintendent of West Point; Stonewall Jackson was a hero of the Mexican War and a teacher at the Virginia Military Institute; Nathan Bedford Forrest was a millionaire businessman and a city councilman in Memphis. These men were all integrated into America’s political, military, and economic systems before secession and would soon become its sworn enemies in a war to divide the country. Davis would become President of the Confederacy; Lee and Jackson its most famous commanders; Forrest would become a Confederate general and later become a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
If the Civil War had never happened, or the southern states had never seceded, these men and others like them would have all remained in their places in American society, carrying their beliefs with them and working to divide and weaken the country from within. The men who led the fight to defeat the Union could have just as easily carried on their fight by undermining the government’s ability to shape policy in the south and liberate the slaves. The country’s divisions would have festered on for far longer than they did, and the United States would be a radically different country than it is today – frighteningly so.
This is a constructive way to look at Pakistan: a country in need of a Civil War. The fact is that America does have friends in Pakistan. People who cherish the very freedoms America fights for and who work alongside its military and intelligence leaders to defeat common enemies in al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet there are also elements within the Pakistani government that work to obstruct those efforts and assist the elements of radical Islam.
It is true that America’s enemies in the Afghan theater have received support from elements in Pakistani intelligence. It may turn out to be true that bin Laden himself enjoyed a measure of protection from powerful people in the Pakistani government. Yet it is also true that Pakistan has captured and killed more terrorists than any other country. They helped capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, and many other senior al-Qeada members. They have also suffered more at the hands of terrorists than any other country. Entire swathes of the country are beyond the control of Islamabad. Suicide bombings are a regular occurrence throughout the country. The man who live-blogged the raid in Abbottabad had moved his family there to escape the constant bombings that were taking place in his home city of Lahore, which was itself a peaceful city until recently. President Zardari’s wife, and former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by al-Qeada. Pakistani’s have to live under a threat from Islamic terrorists that Americans can scarcely imagine.
It may be easy for frustrated Americans to say that Pakistan is not an ally because they do not fit the template of Britain, Canada or Australia. They probably never will. It may be tempting to condemn Pakistan’s leaders and cut funding because their partnership has at times been maddening. But Pakistan is on the front lines of this war. That line goes through Pakistani society itself. The partnership is in need of examination. That is only prudent. But if America cuts off aid and casts aside their alliance, they might be throwing their friends to the wolves.
Just as there are people in America today who wave Confederate flags and hold a romantic vision of its leaders, there will be segments in Pakistani society for generations to come whose allegiance will be to the their country’s backward elements. This is very much a generational struggle. It would be a shame if the United States allowed Pakistan’s version of the Confederacy to prevail out to a lack of patience.
About the author: Brendan Wilson is an independent political analyst focusing on Russia and Central Asia. He has an MA in International Relations and is currently based in Miami.