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05.11.11

Is Pakistan's Arab Spring Coming?

The raid on Osama bin Laden laid bare the myth of close cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan. Shirin Tahir-Kheli on how the rising tension could lead to Pakistan’s Arab Spring.

The raid on Osama bin Laden laid bare the myth of close cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan. Shirin Tahir-Kheli on how the rising tension could lead to Pakistan’s Arab Spring. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.

The May 1 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden and knocked Pakistani military and intelligence forces off the pedestal on which they have been ensconced for 64 years. In a country with enormous economic and social needs, few really challenged the fact that the military received a preponderant 52 percent of the annual budget. Pakistanis were told that no amount was too much for the protection of the homeland and that the military provided overarching security against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Even after the 1971 defeat at the hands of India and the loss of what was until then East Pakistan, the rehabilitation of the military was swift. Pakistan's subsequent acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, deemed secure in the hands of the armed services, provided another update for an aura of national respect. American homage to Pakistan's military over decades has helped maintain the institution's edge over the wrangling mess that has often been political Pakistan.

It is thus ironic that the latest chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations is marked by a rift that is caused by differing perceptions of Pakistan's actual role in the military's fight against extremism. American engagement with Pakistan during the last decade started with General Pervez Musharraf's turn-around after 9/11, when President George W. Bush and others called for a halt to Pakistan's support for extremists, including Afghanistan's Taliban and al Qaeda, who sponsored them. From 2001 until the present, American policy leaders automatically reached out to their military counterparts as relationships were built and sustained with Pakistan. Only in 2007, when internal politics in Pakistan made an exclusive alliance with the military impossible, did the Bush administration broker the deal that took Benazir Bhutto back to Pakistan. The move cost her her life, but it did bring elections and a democratic government into power. Too weak to challenge the military's supremacy, hobbled by perpetual charges of corruption and ineptitude, the civilian leaders have struggled under natural disasters such as the 2010 floods and manmade disasters such as the political assassination of the moderate leader Salman Taseer, the governor of the largest province, the Punjab. Civilian writ was determined by the reach of the military which garnered an overwhelming share of American assistance in the last decade ostensibly to fight terrorism.

The Abbottabad raid laid bare the myth of close cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan. While opinion polls have highlighted the low level of support for the U.S. among Pakistan's public, even below that for India today, we learn from Leon Panetta, the CIA director, that the U.S. did not want to share any advance notice of the operation by the SEALs because Pakistan could not be trusted to keep the secret. Someone was bound to tip off Osama bin Laden and Pakistan's military and intelligence were deemed untrustworthy in a highly secret operation that netted the world's most-wanted man. President Obama's announcement of the successful completion of the operation thrust Pakistan into a state of shock and may have helped unleash the potential for Pakistan's version of the Arab Spring, where old patterns of control give way to a more accountable and transparent system.

As the potential for prolonged democratic rule becomes apparent, the United States would do well to side with the people in all of its assistance programming.

Pakistan's civilian leaders have called in the service chiefs and the intelligence leadership to explain two issues. One, how did bin Laden successfully hide in the military's backyard for nearly six years? Second, how effective is the military's stewardship of Pakistan, including its nuclear arsenal, if unbeknownst to its intelligence and military, a superior force can enter the country, achieve its goal and depart before any alarm is raised or any action is taken? One can only hope that the elected representatives of the people ask about the first as a critical issue which must be addressed if Pakistan is to rehabilitate its tattered reputation.

Pakistan's social structure makes it almost implausible that someone like bin Laden could hide in Abbottabad for several years without assistance from some powerful individuals. It is the business of the army and the intelligence chiefs respectively to demand accountability within the service. However, they do need now to answer to the people why over these last many years they have responded with arrogance to the charge that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. They kept demanding intelligence to prove that he was in their midst. Yet, there he actually was and no one knew except a reported gold smuggler with a house surrounded by high walls? Foreigners cannot even own land in Pakistan where national identity cards are routinely required for many transactions normal elsewhere. Yet, we are to believe that an Afghan national was able to buy land right next to the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan's West Point, and build an unusual house over many months without anyone knowing for what it was intended.

Getting beyond embarrassment, the National Security Committee of the National assembly will be meeting in-camera to question General Ashfaq Kayani and General Shuja Pasha as to the operations of the security establishment and culpability of the bin Laden saga. The fact that these military leaders have even agreed to show up demonstrates their new sense of vulnerability before the political leaders to whom they normally pay scant attention. The media is full of questions asked by many Pakistanis reflecting the demise of the myth of military's superior place in society. While no one expects that the institution will or should collapse, given the tense relationship with neighbors, all are wondering whether in a new Pakistan, political supremacy over the military is finally due. As the potential for prolonged democratic rule becomes apparent, the United States would do well to side with the people in all of its assistance programming. Pakistan's stability and the region's security depend on it.

Shirin Tahir-Kheli has served at the National Security Council under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. She is the author of several works on U.S.-Pakistan relations.