Unraveling the mystery of who sheltered Osama bin Laden won’t be easy. Ex-CIA officer Bruce Riedel on how the army is both at war with al Qaeda and in bed with it.
Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world, but also one of the most complicated. There are basically two possible explanations for the relationship between al Qaeda and the Pakistani army: the army manipulates the jihadis or the jihadis manipulate the army. Both are terrifying. The first is awful, the second is much more frightening. Both are true.
Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, in some ways the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. He started his career as a fundraiser for the Pakistani army's only military success in its 60-plus years—the war against the USSR in Afghanistan. He worked side by side with the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, then. He helped create the army's jihadist Frankenstein masterpiece: Lashkar-e-Taiba—the army of the pure—which attacked Mumbai and which has mourned him more than any one else. Lashkar leader Hafez Saed has openly eulogized bin Laden, but Saed is also a regular feature at rallies attended by senior army officers.
And yet al Qaeda's other ally in Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban, was with the army. Together al Qaeda and the Taliban have killed hundreds of Pakistani soldiers, even attacking their headquarters and cantonments. They have killed senior officers and declared their intention to kill chief of army staff General Kayani. Al Qaeda's new boss, Ayman al-Zawahri, has written a book on why Pakistan needs an Islamic revolution. Its most effective operator, Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, was trained by the ISI but now regularly hunts it. He has killed several senior commanders, and has even tried to eliminate former dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Obama: 'We Have to Investigate' Pakistan's Ties to bin Laden
So how is the army both at war with al Qaeda and in bed with it? The answer is the army is riddled with jihadist sympathizers. For decades, the officer corps has been told India is the enemy, America is unreliable and rapacious, and that Islam is the answer. Even those officers who appreciate American support (the country has received billions in aid since 9/11) resent it too. Like all Pakistanis, they also believe America is closer in values and interests to India. They are right.
The Pakistani army, the fifth largest in the world, is a maze of contradictions and complexities. Meanwhile it steadily builds more nuclear weapons faster than any other country in the world today.
The syndicate of terror in Pakistan is not a monolith. It has no single leader. Its fluidity is a strength, because it is so complex and multi-layered. Now it is clear it has put its agents deep in the Pakistani military. Obama was right not to trust it on Osama.
The Pakistani army, the fifth-largest in the world, is a maze of contradictions and complexities. Meanwhile it steadily builds more nuclear weapons faster than any other country in the world today. It has close ties to China and Saudi Arabia and troops deployed to back up monarchies like Bahrain and Oman.
It is easy to be confused and angry about Pakistan. But that is not a strategy. The right course calls for engagement, with tough redlines, backed by unilateral operations when needed.
Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At President Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.