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A flawed narrative

April 01, 2012

COAS General Ashfaq Kayani recently decried the rampant criticism of the military and intelligence agencies within Pakistan and urged critics to let the security establishment fulfil its mandate without interference.

Criticism certainly abounds. In recent months, the ISI has taken flak for alleged human rights abuses in Balochistan, still-missing persons, past political interventions, continuing support for militant organisations, intelligence failures both vis-à-vis TTP attacks and the American footprint on Pakistani soil, and an outdated strategy in Afghanistan. Mapping the media discourse, one starts to wonder if the security establishment still has a handle on what it’s trying to do.

Outside Pakistan, however, a slightly different narrative persists. According to this narrative, Pakistan’s security establishment is comprised of rational actors. Despite all the talk of double games, jihadist sympathies and radicalisation within ranks, a fair number of western policymakers, analysts and academics believe that Pakistani intelligence agents are driven by coherent strategies and pragmatic considerations. These voices concede that the international community may disagree — or even disapprove of — these strategies and considerations. But they can recognise the logic that enables them.

To justify the theory that rational actors people Pakistan’s security establishment, many foreign observers point to the fact that counterterrorism cooperation has continued at a largely consistent rate since 2001. Through bilateral histrionics, cross-border raids, tussles over aid packages and discontinued supply lines, a steady drip of counter-terror intelligence has been provided by Pakistan to its on-again, off-again allies in the war against terrorism.

This consistency is understood as a form of self-preservation, and is thus taken as proof of presiding rationality. The argument goes that the ISI understands that a terrorist attack that occurs on foreign soil — whether in the US, UK, EU, China or India — and is traced back to Pakistan will necessitate a strong response. That response could range from sanctions to surgical strikes, counter-attacks to containment, but it will be politically necessary to appease enraged publics in the affected country. The fallout for Pakistan of such responses would be disastrous.

These foreign observers thus believe that Pakistan’s security establishment knows that just enough counterterrorism cooperation is required to prevent an international terrorist attack, or to ensure that both governments involved are equally complicit in the intelligence failures that led to the attack. Ongoing diplomatic relations with an increasingly unstable Pakistan are premised on this basic assumption that the intelligence agencies ‘get it’ and are largely on board.

New information about former Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden’s apparently nine-year jaunt around Pakistan contradicts the narrative described above. According to a report drafted by a joint civilian and military investigative panel, Bin Laden traipsed around the country from 2002 until 2011, moving between Karachi, Peshawar, Shangla, Haripur and Abbottabad, fathering children born in government hospitals.

Whether Bin Laden’s extended presence in Pakistan was owing to the intelligence’s machinations or incompetence, it belies the rational actor theory. The fact that Bin Laden sought sanctuary in Pakistan contradicts the assumption that the security establishment would not put itself in a situation that is counterproductive, suicidal, or that would invite unilateral foreign actions akin to the US raid against Bin Laden’s compound.

If the intelligence agencies facilitated the stay in Pakistan of the world’s most wanted man, they were behaving irrationally. And if they were unable to uncover him as he moved between five Pakistani cities, then their ability to manage the bare minimum of counter-terror cooperation is questionable.

In this context, the most ardent call for investigating the enabling circumstances of Bin Laden’s stay in Pakistan should come from within the country itself. After all, Pakistanis will be the ones to suffer most if the rational actor theory about the security establishment proves false, and if Pakistan-based militants successfully launch a terrorist attack abroad.

Unfortunately, the lingering question of what is to be done with Bin Laden’s widows threatens to hijack the public discourse. The security establishment is reluctant to release the women from its custody, probably for fear of what information they can share about Bin Laden’s facilitators and protectors within Pakistan.

The Pakistani authorities are also still suffering the hangover of the Aafia Siddiqui case. They worry that if they hand over Bin Laden’s wives to Yemen or Saudi Arabia, those governments will interrogate the women, and possibly grant the US access to them as well. This scenario would empower the religious right and extremists to critique the Pakistan government for betraying yet more Muslim sisters.

For all the complexity of the wives’ circumstances, they should not distract from the questions about Bin Laden’s presence in the country. At this juncture, it is more important to understand the security establishment’s current approach towards foreign actors that plot against foreign targets from Pakistani sanctuaries. It is a cause of concern that the Pakistani Taliban apparently trained Mohamed Merah, the French citizen responsible for last month’s shooting spree in Toulouse.

More alarming are news reports that suggest another 85 French citizens are undergoing militant training in North Waziristan. Similarly, in early March, Nur Bekri, the top Chinese government official in Xinjiang, publicly declared that Uighur militants draw strength from and maintain ties with Pakistani militant groups.

Bin Laden’s Pakistan adventure has punctured the belief that the intelligence agencies do not tolerate the shenanigans of foreign actors on Pakistani soil. Rather than take comfort in the chimera of the security establishment’s rationality, Pakistanis should demand a review of the intelligence agencies’ strategic priorities by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security or other stakeholders. That action would be wholly rational.

The writer is a freelance journalist.