If it was on board, then this is as per its policy of looking the other way even as the US goes about eliminating the al Qaeda by drone attacks and at times, by Special Forces ground action. Its intelligence wing, the ISI, has earlier participated in rendition of terror suspects and had been paid for its pains.
Whether Pakistan was on board or not is material because the answer will determine the nature of backlash that can now be expected to unfold over time. Pakistan is apprehensive of the fallout and understandably therefore would like to distance itself from the action. Its foreign office statement demonstrates this: “This operation was conducted by the US forces in accordance with declared US policy that Osama Bin Ladin will be eliminated in a direct action by the US forces, wherever found in the world.”
Obama sensibly acknowledges very little in his speech, merely highlighting the counter-terrorism cooperation that “helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound he was hiding in.” He informs of Zardari’s reaction to the news that it was a “good and historic day.” Without going into specifics, a statement from Pakistan’s foreign office claims, “Pakistan has played a significant role in efforts to eliminate terrorism.”
It can be conceded that this was a unilateral action by the US on Pakistani territory as per a tacit agreement between the two states. While earlier such military action was closer to the Durand line, this time it was in the heartland due to the nature of the quarry. That the US would not have liked to compromise such a significant operation by informing Pakistan can be expected. At this moment it makes for prudence to allow the Army plausible deniability.
It is unlikely that the Army will acknowledge any role it may have played, even if air space management, critical to the operation, was under its control. It is likely that it was kept in the dark by the US, especially since it would more likely than not have known of bin Laden’s presence. It is to the credit of the tenacity of US intelligence that a highly professional raid by a SEAL strike team eliminated bin Laden. This would preserve Pakistan and its Army from the worst of the backlash, though not prevent it from occurring.
The bargain with Osama would likely have been along the lines that while he had shelter, it would not be possible for Pakistan to keep the US off his trail. This dénouement has a ring of inevitability to it. The US in tidying up its Af-Pak endgame in the run up to elections needed to eliminate the head of al Qaeda for several reasons. Handling the aftermath sensibly is as important as the decision itself. In this Pakistan remains centre-stage.
The backlash may take the form of assassination. Earlier, Musharraf’s U-turn in favour of the GWOT had led to assassination attempts on his life in late 2003. The Salman Taseer case indicates the inroads of radicalism. Since the Pakistan Army is central to stability in Pakistan, it would be necessary for it to stay on even keel.
While in his speech Obama required Pakistan to continue on board, it is very likely that Pakistan will be less than forthcoming. Relations have been down hill over the year. This can prove to be an opportunity for Pakistan to ask the US to wind down, as some of its politicians have been demanding. The suggestion here is that the US could itself choose to do so since its campaign has culminated. Chancing its luck further in staying on in Pakistan in face of increasing anti-Americanism would make subsequent disengagement problematic. Strategic prudence suggests that exit is best when on top or when the going is good.
The announcement of a renewed spring offensive by the Taliban last week suggests that this summer’s campaign would indeed be as critical as expected. The Pakistani Army would be wary of instability spreading into its heartland; into Karachi and into its corporate cohesion were it to do so. The exit strategy framed the ‘surge’ will prove suboptimal.
Since the road ahead is one of diminishing returns, the political prong opened up by the Karzai-Gilani combine needs to be pushed along with the promise of a Marshall Plan for Af-Pak. This alone can preserve Pakistan from serving over the long-term as sanctuary as Osama’s presence indicates.
The death of bin Laden heralds the departure of the US, even if over an extended duration, also because it intended to do so. The question is whether this would be as neat as the SEAL operation.