Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has stirred new controversy after a speech he gave in the national parliament in which he described Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death as martyrdom by the United States. Bin Laden was “martyed,” he said.
The statement from the country’s premier is problematic for several reasons. The fact that Khan has given similar statements in the past shows what the country’s ruling elite thinks about the slain leader of the transnational terrorist organization and what it means for Pakistan’s security policy in essence.
It doesn’t appear that Khan’s description of al-Qaeda’s leader as a “martyr” was a mere slip of the tongue. Sources within the prime minister office say that Khan is unlikely to offer a clarification over his statement. This is worrying for two reasons. First, if Khan’s office doesn’t offer clarification, it means the country’s highest policymaking office believes that al-Qaeda’s former head, who killed thousands of civilians worldwide, was a victim rather than an an aggressor.
Second, a refusal to clarify the statement will have direct implications on Pakistan’s fight against militancy in the country and efforts to work with other partners in the region to contain militant groups. Calling bin Laden a martyr at a time when the Afghan peace process is underway and Pakistan’s national security establishment is trying very hard to delink the issue of Kashmir from terrorism will undermine Pakistan’s interests.
It is important to note that Washington has worked closely with the Afghan Taliban to ensure that al-Qaeda doesn’t find safe haven in Afghanistan or the region. Both actors have made some headway on this front. However, the last thing Washington needs is the head of Pakistan’s government declaring al-Qaeda a victim of the United States’ military campaign in the region. Essentially, this means that Washington needs to work on securing guarantees from Pakistan rather than the Taliban if the former is to decimate the group’s infrastructure and support base in the region.
Khan’s statement comes in the wake of the U.S. Department of State’s annual country report on terrorism in which Pakistan’s efforts to destroy militancy in the county and region are considered unacceptable. The report notes:
Pakistan remained a safe harbor for other regionally focused terrorist groups. It allowed groups targeting Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and affiliated HQN, as well as groups targeting India, including LeT and its affiliated front organizations, and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), to operate from its territory.
For Washington, Khan’s statement only confirms that groups like al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network continue to find support in Pakistan. Moreover, this undermines Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts over the last few years whereby the country tried to prove that it intends to take on all militant groups and any accusations otherwise are baseless.
The statement is certainly going to be noticed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is preparing to call Pakistan for another hearing in the coming months. For a year, Islamabad has been working very hard to prove that the country doesn’t support any anti-India militant groups. A single statement from the prime minister may now reverse all these efforts, hurting the country’s diplomacy badly.
The development will be noted by Pakistan’s national security establishment too. The statement brings attention to a question that the Pakistani military has sought to evade for years. This possible situation of putting Pakistan’s national security policy and the country’s so-called dubious regional policy on trial over a statement from Khan will annoy the top brass of the military.
It should not be forgotten that Pakistan’s military is working closely with the United States on the Afghan peace process and has assured its complete cooperation to the Afghan leadership as well. What will the chief of Pakistan’s military tell the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan when he calls to ask for Pakistan’s official position over the matter?
The military may force Khan into issuing a clarification, explaining that he didn’t mean to say what he said. However, every passing hour will solidify the position of stakeholders that want to hold Pakistan accountable for its controversial national security policy.