The Diplomat speaks with Indian Decade contributor and UNESCO Peace Chair Madhav Nalapat about the implications of Osama bin Laden's death and the future of islamic extremism.
You've written before about alleged links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and terrorists, specifically in relation to the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Do you expect the attention focused on Pakistan's intelligence services following the killing of Osama bin Laden to bring sufficient pressure for change?
Days after the Mumbai attack, sources tracking events in Pakistan told me that the ISI was behind the carnage, and that the Pakistan military had assisted in the training and logistics of the attack. Because of this information, I was the first to write authoritatively on the ISI's involvement, which was denied by the United States for more than a year after the terrorist outrage happened.
Successive US administrations have, for the previous 60 years, believed that they can use Pakistan for their own purposes. Military assistance given since the 1950s to ‘fight communism’ was used solely against India, with Pakistan joining hands with China since 1963 — nine years before President Richard Nixon established a strategic partnership with Beijing. Even the CIA can’t believe that the Pakistan establishment was unaware of A.Q. Khan's activities, yet it acts otherwise, exactly as it has over the bin Laden execution.
Yes, the Pakistani military can be forced to support rather than sabotage US interests. However, this will come about only when carrots get replaced by sticks, and when officers known to be assisting groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba get sanctioned by the United States the way the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been, and prosecuted in the International Court the way the Serbians have been.
Thus far, there’s no sign of this happening. Indeed, the United States is rapidly losing the very ability to alter the behaviour of the Pakistan military. For the past decade, I’ve pointed to the growing influence of China within the Pakistan military. By around 2005, I’d say, Beijing had overtaken the US in overall influence, and is now far ahead. The Pakistan military is becoming like the Burmese military, a tributary of the People’s Liberation Army. Hence, to expect change post-bin Laden is to live on illusions.
Do Pakistan’s protestations that they didn't know bin Laden was there have any credibility?
To answer this, we have to disaggregate ‘Pakistan’ into what function as separate silos, one of which has remained sealed and watertight, unaffected by the rest. This is the core of the military establishment, the supreme command of the intelligence and asymmetric warfare departments. Since the time when Pervez Musharraf (who from the start was merely a front for the core establishment rather than an independent player) professed support for the United States post-9/11, that part of the Pakistan military seen as ‘pro-US’ (or opposed to the types of asymmetric warfare carried out by select military units) has been excluded from information about the activities of what may be called the ‘pro-Beijing’ group, the formation to which Gen. Kayani belongs.
Within the civilian establishment, there are elements trusted by the core of the military establishment, an example being the previous Foreign Minister of Pakistan, S M Qureshi. Such elements are given information on plans and activities on condition that these remain secret. However, at present, there’s almost no one in the Zardari-Gilani government that is trusted by the core. Hence it’s very probable that they were unaware of bin Laden's presence.
Why was Osama bin Laden being protected? Possibly as a human hostage, to ensure that those elements of al-Qaeda (a very decentralised collection of groups that hardly merits a common label) would avoid attacking targets that the core military wanted immunity for, and would focus instead on targets that they saw as inconsequential to their needs or needed to be attacked.
In my view, the US Navy SEAL team that took out Bin Laden committed an act of grave folly. They ought to have incapacitated him and taken him away for detailed interrogation in Guantanamo Bay. The effect of bin Laden in that facility would have had a great impact on terrorist morale, while the man himself could have given exhaustive information about his links.
The United States also seems singularly tardy in ensuring access to bin Laden's family members and others who would know more about the circumstances of his links with Pakistan. Perhaps they are as afraid of looking closer at this as a lover is when confronted with a sealed cover containing photographs of his lady love. Should bin Laden have been allowed to talk, the jig that the CIA and the Pentagon have danced with Pakistan may no longer have been tolerable to the US public. However, eventually enough will become known so as make such an unnatural relationship as politically untenable as it is militarily unwise.
What have you made of India's response?
India has made itself a bit player because of the timidity of the establishment. For decades, ever since Rajiv Gandhi was defeated in the elections in 1989, the Delhi establishment has pursued a policy more suited to Nepal than to India. Under the circumstances, the so-called response of India is an irrelevance that can be safely disregarded, except for verbal protestations by the US side of understanding and compliance.
How do you expect bin Laden's death to affect Islamic extremism in the region?
Was it Osama bin Laden who designed textbooks in Pakistan, the Middle East and Malaysia that teach Muslims to look down on other faiths? That inject scripture into every lesson and ensure that graduates lack the skills needed to compete in a globalised world? Why is it that so many citizens in the Middle Eastern sheikhdoms are mere pensioners, unwilling — and indeed unable — to do any useful work? It’s because of an education system that has replaced Islam with Wahabbism, and which has made many young Muslim minds hate ‘The Rest’ rather than see them too as children of the Almighty, the way the Quran has made clear.
These days, there is a lot of attention on Libya and on Syria. There are efforts at caricaturing the Libyan regime of Col. Gaddafi as being anti-woman and even pro-rape. This is deception on the same scale as the supposed huge stocks of WMD in defeated Saddamite Iraq.
The fact is that women in Libya and Syria have far better status than they do in Saudi Arabia or in other favourite states of the NATO powers. These days, NATO seems to be doing the bidding of the monarchies by taking out the secular republican regimes, exactly as the alliance did in Iraq. In Libya and now in Syria, those being backed by NATO are led by Wahabbis who hate Gaddafi not for his dictatorship but for allowing unveiled women to walk about and permitting religious minorities freedom of worship. Unless NATO brings its professed human values into better alignment with those it backs, the new Middle East will see a virulent form of religious extremism spread, the way it has in Gaza and the West Bank.
But back to bin Laden. If the man had to be executed on the spot rather than captured alive, it would have been better if he had been treated not as a Muslim but as an apostate. By his deeds, he forfeited the right to call himself a Muslim. By giving him an Islamic burial, the Obama administration legitimised bin Laden's claim that he was a Muslim. And by blacking out information on the actual operation, it has gone against the core democratic principle of transparency and thereby spawned a welter of conspiracy theories. With enemies such as these, al-Qaeda has no need of friends.