Sunday’s sudden capture of Osama bin Laden in close vicinity of the Pakistani army’s premier training academy has raised some troubling questions. By all appearances, he had been hiding in plain sight for almost six years. It remains unclear whether the Pakistani military was colluding with al Qaeda or really had just overlooked his compound. If the military knew his whereabouts, it most likely kept the civilian government in the dark. If it had no clue, it was because finding the al Qaeda chief was not a top priority.

Either way, the episode has put into stark relief the urgent need to address the gross power imbalance between Pakistan’s generals and politicians, whose views of the scourge of terrorism diverge. As I wrote in "Getting the Military Out of Pakistani Politics" (May/June 2011), whereas the government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party, unequivocally opposes violent extremists, the military continues to view some groups (such as the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba) as strategic foreign policy tools.

Suspecting Pakistan’s complicity in hiding bin Laden, some U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Me.), have questioned the utility of sending additional aid to the country. Others, such as Representatives Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Allen West (R-Fla.), have even authored legislation that would halt U.S. assistance to Pakistan if its deceit in hiding bin Laden is proven. But nuclear-armed Pakistan needs international assistance to keep its economy afloat and meet its long-term development needs. And, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations today, U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) urged caution, saying, “A legitimate analysis concludes that it is undeniable that our relationship with Pakistan has helped us pursue our security goals.”

The United States should take this opportunity to reset U.S.-Pakistani ties. First, with the Pakistani military facing increasing domestic and global scrutiny, the administration should demand that it sever links to militant organizations, or risk losing security assistance. In the meantime, Congress should unapologetically enforce the conditionality clauses of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 that link military aid to certification by the U.S. secretary of state that Pakistan is not allowing its territory to be used by al Qaeda, the Taliban, or their affiliates, and that the military is operating under civilian control.

Second, the United States should start earnestly cooperating with and supporting Pakistan’s civilian institutions, including its law enforcement agencies. The country’s major political parties, parliament, and civil society share Washington’s interest in rooting out extremism and militancy in Pakistan and prefer peace with India to hostility. Since bin Laden’s capture, the military has been publicly combative and defiant, whereas the civilian government has expressed its desire to work with the United States, promising to investigate how bin Laden was able to set up camp in Pakistan’s heartland. The country’s media and lawmakers are also asking tough questions of the generals, and some in parliament are demanding that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence revise its policies so this does not happen again.

Whatever their shortcomings, Pakistan’s civilian democratic institutions need the United States’ unequivocal backing. In the long run, after all, only a democratic and economically viable Pakistan will be able to prevent terrorists from finding easy refuge on its territory.

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Read Shah's orignal article:
Getting the Military Out of Pakistani Politics: How Aiding the Army Undermines Democracy
Aqil Shah
May/June 2011
Pakistan is unlikely to collapse anytime soon, but the imbalance of power between its civilian and military branches needs to be addressed if it is to become an effective modern state. Washington must stop coddling Pakistan's military and instead work patiently to support the country's civilian authorities.

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  • AQIL SHAH is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is writing a book about the Pakistan Military and Politics in Historical and Regional Perspective.
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