2 May 2011
Farzana Shaikh

Dr Farzana Shaikh

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Even for a country long used to intense and often negative scrutiny about its motives, Pakistan could scarcely have anticipated the wave of suspicion directed at it in the wake of yesterday's dramatic announcement confirming the death of Osama bin Laden.

How much did Pakistan know?

His killing, in a daring operation mounted by US special forces in the northern Pakistani garrison town of Abbotabad, home to an elite military academy and a mere stone's throw from the political capital, Islamabad, has fuelled unprecedented speculation about Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies and their alleged role in harbouring a man wanted in connection with the world's worst terrorist atrocity.

Although none of this speculation is new (last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bluntly declared that some Pakistani officials were withholding information about bin Laden's whereabouts) much of it, until now, has been relatively muted.

The restraint stemmed in part from US concerns not to alienate a key ally in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and partly from Pakistan's own carefully nurtured position of 'plausible deniability'. But with Osama bin Laden now dead in circumstances that have cast a less than edifying light on Pakistan and its state apparatus and with one of America's key war objectives decisively secured, the gloves appear to be well and truly off.

What next for US-Pakistan relations?

The implications for Pakistan could be momentous. The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden is a strike for which Pakistan can claim no credit (publicly at least for fear of further antagonizing a fiercely anti-American constituency at home). The country has lost a valuable trump card - with it has gone the kind of leverage to which Pakistan's political and military leadership had grown accustomed. That leverage accounted for a seemingly endless stream of demands imposed in exchange for Pakistan's co-operation in a war it has always refused to acknowledge as it own. Those demands included access to ever larger Western aid packages and a seat at the top table in Afghanistan to determine the outcome of a post-war settlement.

While Pakistan's importance as a key ally of the West will still remain broadly intact, so long as it remains the chief conduit for NATO supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan, there is no question that the loss of bin Laden has left Pakistan's political and military leadership with one less card to play as an ally entitled to the attention and generosity of the West. This is especially true of Pakistan's relations with its chief benefactor, the United States, which are said to be at breaking point.

Pakistan needs international support

Overwhelmed by accusations of aiding and abetting the world's most notorious terrorist, Pakistan could be heading towards a period of extended international isolation not unlike the 1990s. Those years brought a regime of sanctions against Pakistan and concerted moves led by the United States to declare Pakistan a 'terrorist state'.

Any repeat of that period would be catastrophic for Pakistan. With an economy shattered by the aftermath of devastating floods last year, Pakistan has never been more dependent on foreign economic assistance. Yet many fear that public opinion abroad will now call for an end to all but essential assistance to Pakistan - an ally long regarded as difficult and ungrateful, especially by the American tax-payer.

Pakistan also needs the support of the international community to consolidate the fragile gains of its multi-party democracy. Abandoning the country now and withdrawing Western pledges to strengthen Pakistan's civilian institutions will leave it vulnerable to another military takeover.

But above all, Pakistan needs the attention of the international community to pursue peace with its neighbours - India and Afghanistan. Failing to do so would not only strengthen forces inside Pakistan that have long fed off these conflicts, but squander the many sacrifices made by the international community, and indeed the people of Pakistan, to ensure that after bin Laden the world is, in the words of President Barack Obama, 'a safer place'.