Beyond the Point of No Return

To kill Osama bin Laden on May 1, more than 20 U.S. Navy SEALs flew stealth helicopters low over the Pakistan hills to a compound just 50 miles north of Islamabad. There, they found the world’s most wanted man, surrounded by Pakistani military and law enforcement – just a mile from the Pakistan military academy – where he had taken refuge for five years. In killing bin Laden, the SEALs answered a decade-old call for justice. By killing him without warning in the heart of Pakistan, the SEALs also revealed how he had survived so long, and Pakistan’s apparent interest in his protection. At press time, U.S. officials were sifting through captured computers and other data, seeking evidence that the Pakistani government was aware of, and protected, bin Laden.

Following the mission, President Obama told the American public that Pakistan was not informed about the incursion until bin Laden was dead and his body was aboard a U.S. chopper, along with a huge stash of computers, documents and other intelligence, heading across the border.

In fact, U.S. troops were authorized and prepared to shoot their way back to Afghanistan if Pakistan had tried to block their return to friendly territory, according to The New York Times.

Bin Laden was living in the cool, peaceful garrison town of Abbottabad, an area thick with troops and retired military.

Many asked how, without Pakistan’s help, he could shelter in plain view for so long in a military town. The government immediately dismissed any insinuations.

“It is disingenuous for anyone to blame Pakistan or state institutions of Pakistan, including the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and the armed forces, for being in cahoots with al-Qaida ...  allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the Parliament.

Gilani warned the United States that further incursions without Pakistan’s knowledge or approval would be met with force. His anger was directed at the U.S. violation of Pakistani sovereignty, not at bin Laden and his terrorist allies, who have killed 30,000 Pakistanis and 5,000 Pakistani troops over the past decade.

Troubled Marriage. The clash over the bin Laden extraction intensified what has been a love-hate relationship between Pakistan and the United States for decades.

The latter has awakened to discover that it is married to a giant, unstable, troubled Muslim country of 180 million people, armed with 100 nuclear weapons. Pakistan allowed nuclear secrets to flow to Iran, North Korea and Libya. It allowed extremist militant groups to base themselves in Pakistan and cross into Afghanistan to kill Americans, Afghans and U.S. allies.

And Pakistan vented its displeasure with the United States after the bin Laden killing by disclosing, for the second time in a year, the name of the U.S. CIA station chief in Pakistan.

Despite these actions, since 9/11 the United States has given $20 billion in civilian and military aid to buy weapons and pay the salaries of Pakistan’s government officials, doctors, police and soldiers. Another $7.5 billion in civilian aid over five years has been approved, but less than $200 million of which has been spent, due to fears of corruption and doubts about Pakistani compliance with transparency.

In 2010, some $4.5 billion in aid went to Pakistan, and an equal amount has been requested for 2012 by the Obama administration.

It’s widely believed that much of the military aid has been used to purchase weapons aimed at deterring Pakistan’s huge rival to the east – India – rather than finding and killing terrorists.

U.S. diplomats and military officers often publicly voice gratitude to Pakistan for cooperation in the war effort, and for allowing the United States to transport troops, weapons, food and fuel to our military personnel in Afghanistan.

Willingly or unwillingly, despite the U.S. aid and praise, Pakistan continues to house the biggest active nest of terrorists in the world: al-Qaida, the Taliban leaders, the Haqqani network, Hizb-i-Islami, Chechens, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Filipinos, Yemenis. All go to Pakistan as if on a terrorism fellowship retreat to learn how to fight the West.

Another deadly Pakistani terrorist group is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which specializes in killing Shiites, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), which trained tens of thousands of Pakistanis to infiltrate India-held Kashmir. 60,000 have died there since 1990.

LET also sent 10 commandos into Mumbai in November 2008, where they killed 166 people, including six Americans, in hotels, a train station and a Jewish center.

Lawyers for some of the dead Americans are trying to prosecute Pakistan’s ISI in U.S. courts for links to the attack.

When I asked a senior Pakistani political leader why the government does not rein in LET, he told me, “The government is afraid of them. So am I. Don’t publish my name. They can put 100,000 men under arms in the street at a moment’s notice.”

The Victim Card. On my first visit to Pakistan in 1967, people everywhere treated me wonderfully. As an American, I was a welcome guest in every tea shop and restaurant. I met people from all levels of society.

But one university student in Punjab province told me not to drink from a faucet because “the sweepers drink from there.” I’d just left the United States, where we were coming to grips with the need to end “whites-only” water fountains, and I was not about to boycott a faucet because poor people used it.

The encounter gave me a taste of the underlying problem that blocks Pakistan from stability, growth, justice and prosperity: the feudal system. If you are born to poor parents, you will remain poor. Even if you get an education, jobs go only to the children of the upper classes. Literacy among men and boys is 50 percent; among women and girls, 36 percent.

Corrupt teachers simply collect their pay and then don’t show up. Rural clinics stand empty as doctors draw big salaries but prefer to live and work in cities where their children can enjoy good schools and electricity.

Pakistan was created in 1947, when British India was partitioned into the giant Hindu state of India and two smaller parcels called Pakistan on its west and east, collectively forming a Muslim state.

The father and first leader of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a strong supporter of a secular state protecting all branches of Islam, as well as Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. But he died after a year in power, and a tilt toward religious extremism began.

At Partition, millions of Hindus fled to India and millions of Muslims went to Pakistan, killing each other along the way. Then the first of three wars between Pakistan and India broke out over Kashmir, a majority Muslim state whose leader chose to join India.

Next came the deepest insult, recalled to this day by Pakistani military officers. In 1971, Indian troops helped East Pakistan break away and form the independent nation of Bangladesh.

Another insult was that most of India’s Muslims decided to remain in India, where they enjoy greater democratic freedoms than they do in Pakistan.

When I left Pakistan for India after my visit in 1967, I witnessed the senseless hatred of the region. Pakistani customs agents ripped apart the luggage of two Indian merchants heading back home. Dozens of white shirts, pajamas and colorful saris were thrown about, crumpled and dropped on the floor, where soldiers trampled them.

The officers let some Muslim traders, and me, pass through without a look at our luggage.

On the other side of the border, Indian customs officers wearing identical uniforms let the Hindu merchants through untouched, but ripped apart the luggage of the Muslim merchants. They tossed their goods every which way and stomped on them.

I recently asked retired Gen. Ehsan ul Haq, former head of the ISI, why Pakistan can’t take its troops off the Indian border, declare a truce, and place them on the Afghan border to stop the Taliban and other terrorists from attacking American and Afghan troops.

He said that Pakistan faced “multiple crises” that threaten to “magnify India’s hegemonic aspirations.” This was an existential problem for Pakistan, which won’t forget the splitting of the country in two in 1971.

The general also repeated what has been a main theme of Pakistani leaders for years: “Pakistan is a victim in the front line of the war on terror.”

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, some 5 million Afghans fled, and were welcomed as refugees in Pakistan. The United States and Saudi Arabia then funneled about $500 million a year to arm Afghan resistance fighters, called mujahedeen, and attack the Soviets. It was payback for the way communist states helped the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese kill more than 55,000 U.S. troops in Southeast Asia.

But the U.S. aid was funneled to Islamic Afghan rebels, rather than to secular or royalist groups. The Islamic rebels were better fighters, and they also promised to renounce an Afghan claim to the Pashtu-speaking regions of northwest Pakistan.

As the struggle became a religious war – a jihad – it began to draw fanatics such as bin Laden to the northwest-Pakistan city of Peshawar, where the CIA, the ISI and several Afghan mujahedeen groups organized the supplies of fighters and weapons – eventually including U.S. Stinger missiles – to defeat Soviet armored helicopters.

When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the United States pulled back, and the mujahedeen turned on each other. Five years later, Pakistan backed the formation of the Taliban, which consisted of Afghans who had studied in Islamic madrassa schools.

The Taliban rapidly took over all but the northeast of Afghanistan, and unleashed medieval religious totalitarian rule. Women could not work or leave the house without a male relative, prayers were mandatory, music and television were banned, shaving was not allowed, ancient Buddhist sculptures were destroyed, and Afghanistan was isolated from most of the world.

The jihadi fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arab world were drunk with power after defeating the world’s second superpower, the Soviet Union. So, with a green light from Pakistan, they crossed into Kashmir to attack Indian rule there.

When I visited Kashmir, I got the strong sense that people there would vote for independence rather than remain with India or join Pakistan. But the Pakistani military, which tolerates and supports the jihadis, sees it as a chance to pin down 500,000 Indian troops and bleed its economy. Pakistan and India even fight a senseless battle on the icy, snowy Siachen Glacier, 21,000 feet above sea level.

During the Cold War, the United States was much closer to Pakistan than to its archrival India. When CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in 1960, his U-2 spy plane had taken off from Pakistan. When Nixon went to China to open diplomatic relations, Pakistan helped arrange the deal. And when India, with its quasi-socialist leanings and central planning, backed the Soviets in the United Nations and bought Soviet weapons, Pakistan generally backed the United States.

Magnet for Militants. These days, polls show that most Pakistanis no longer see the United States as a friendly ally, perhaps because about a decade ago, the United States tilted toward India. The Cold War had recently ended, and India scrapped central planning, attracting U.S. investors. Pakistan, meanwhile, was sinking. It had become a magnet for terrorists and Islamic extremists, who blame Western Christians and Indian Hindus for its poverty and illiteracy.

Some say that if the United States dropped tariffs on Pakistani textiles, it would create thousands of jobs and prevent terrorism more effectively than sending military and civilian aid. But Congress protects the American textile producers, and won’t let Pakistan into our market.

In 1998, India’s Hindu nationalist BJP party won elections there and quickly set off a series of nuclear-weapons tests.

Pakistan responded a month later with its own.

But Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientist, Dr. A.Q. Khan, was secretly selling nuclear and missile technology to North Korea, Iran, Libya and possibly other countries or terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida. Khan was held under house arrest for several years and then released. U.S. investigators were never allowed to question him. He is a national hero to many Pakistanis.

Washington wants Pakistan to tighten its control over nuclear weapons, stop aiding terrorist groups, invade the lawless North Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border, and shut down LET’s infiltration in Kashmir and attacks on India.Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who commanded U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said recently that “we need to use leverage with Pakistan – publicly if needed – to get them to shut the border” with Afghanistan to Taliban and other jihadi fighters.

But Pakistan’s army uses fear of India to justify its control. Pakistan is a long and narrow country. If Indian armor strikes westward in a future conflict, it could rapidly cross Pakistan and enter Afghanistan. So the Pakistan military theory calls for keeping a friendly government in Kabul for “strategic depth” – a secure place to fall back and regroup, if necessary. For that reason, Pakistan backs the Taliban in order to force the current Afghan government of Hamid Karzai to curb India’s influence, shut its consulates, and grant Pakistan assurances that it has Afghanistan to fall back on in times of war with India.

Militant Islam really took off under the Pakistani dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, during the Afghan-Soviet War. Militant Islamic parties such as Jamaat-i-Islami have never received more than 5 to 10 percent of votes in Pakistan’s elections, but they are able to manipulate many politicians and enforce the passage of laws such as the anti-blasphemy statute that allows death for anyone insulting Islam.

The law has been used in a number of questionable cases in which Christians have been accused of blasphemy, and given long sentences or even death (not yet carried out), based on flimsy evidence.

In January, a police guard shot the Punjabi governor Salmaan Taseer a reported 29 times in the back because Taseer favored repeal of the blasphemy law. Most chilling was that many secular Pakistanis, including lawyers, approved of the killing. And religious groups openly warned people not to mourn for the slain leader, or they too would be seen as guilty of blasphemy.

Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution wrote in 2010 that “Pakistan may have reached the point of no return along several dimensions and that extreme scenarios were no longer inconceivable,” including loss of responsible control over nuclear weapons.

“There is also an Islamist narrative which sees Pakistan as the vanguard of an Islamic revolution that will spread from Pakistan to India and then to other lands where Muslims are oppressed,” Cohen added. Given that 25,000 madrassas are now educating more than 1 million young students a year, Pakistan’s secular, modern nation-state may one day be replaced by something akin to the mullocracy of Iran, or the Taliban.

For the moment, the United States cannot easily disengage and withdraw its civilian and military aid without accelerating the rise of extremist Islamic groups. U.S. policy needs to support the moderates, who are the overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan. At the same time, U.S. troops and aid workers are dying in Afghanistan due to elements based in Pakistan. Drone attacks and the erasure of bin Laden may blunt the terrorist spear, but leave a hostile population seething with resentment.

The consequences of all this remain to be seen, but there can be no doubt now that our nation’s fragile relationship with Pakistan has grown even rockier and more volatile, since our Navy SEALs showed the world that bin Laden could not hide from his crimes forever. Ben Barber has written about the developing world for USA Today, Foreign Affairs, Newsday and others. From 2003 to 2010, he was senior writer for USAID. His photojournalism book GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World will be published this fall by