Bin Laden raid one year later: Pakistan's Army untouched

The US Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden last May threw the Pakistan Army into international disrepute. But in Pakistan, the Army has rebounded.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Pakistani boys play at the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 2.

On the eve of the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani stepped up to give a short speech Monday at the Pakistani military's headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Kayani decided to use the occasion to announce the Army's position on the country's political climate. Pakistan has been rocked in recent days by the Supreme Court decision finding the prime minister in contempt, a ruling that the opposition is using to call for his resignation. 

“We [Pakistan's leaders] should always act in such a way, that our self-respect and dignity is enhanced,” said General Kayani, chastising the civilian government and civilian political atmosphere as a whole.

That the Army would feel free to comment indicates that the Pakistani military continues to put itself at the center of the country's political decision-making. 

Military rulers have run Pakistan for the majority of the country's history, and wielded enormous clout behind the scenes even during ostensibly civilian administrations. In the immediate aftermath of the US raid on Abbottabad, some Pakistanis wondered if the civilian government could seize upon the military's embarrassment to establish greater control over the military. Aside from some small shifts, the answer a year later is no. 

“When the raid first happened, the whole world was pointing fingers at [the military]," says Dr. Rasul Bakhs Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

"The international community was suspecting the Army of being in the know regarding Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. Locals were concluding that the Army was either incompetent or complicit. The right was angry that the Army let the US Navy Seals enter our sovereign territory. The leftists agreed, and added ... that Osama bin Laden's presence in an Army garrison town indicated that it was in bed with islamist militants,” he says. 

In the heat of that moment, defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa identified the May 2 raid as a unique opportunity for the civilian government to curb the power of the military. It was an opportunity that Pakistan only held once before in 1971 when the military lost half the country in a war with India that led to the new state of Bangladesh

Now, Dr. Siddiqa says, that ship has sailed.

“That was a very short window – no more than 48 hours, in fact. In hindsight, it leaves one wondering whether there was any window at all. To be honest, political forces were taken by surprise that day. I don't think they had a strategy that could deal with this opportunity,” she says.

Small victories for the civilian government

There have been small victories for the civilian government. In January, a tense row erupted between the Army and the civilian government over a leaked letter from President Asif Ali Zardari to the US. The letter expressed concern in the wake of the Abbottabad raid that the Pakistani Army was looking to overthrow his government. 

Amid the tensions unleashed by the leak, the civilian government fired its defense secretary, who was close to the Army. The government's rare show of defiance led to rumors of a coup that were finally dispelled when Parliament passed a resolution telling the Army to stay within its constitutional limits. 

For the civilian government to have staved off a military coup shows some democratic resilience.

If the current government can continue to hang on until elections next year, it would become the first elected government in Pakistan's history to complete a full five year term in office. But it will have done so partly by not pushing the Army too far. 

'the process is less than trustworthy'

In the critical days after the raid, the Parliament curbed criticism of the Army and ended up releasing a joint statement condemning the entrance of US Navy SEALs onto Pakistani territory, and demanding the establishment of a commission tasked with exploring the raid.

The commission has delayed publishing its report several times. Instead, information regarding the process and findings of the report have been leaked several times. “That in itself indicates that the process is less than trustworthy,” says Siddiqa.

Leaked information has indicated that the commission is not willing to pin the blame on any one institution or individual. In one news report, published in the English-language Pakistani paper The News, a whole host of possible accused are listed, including “Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [provincial] government, the Pakistan Army, the PAF [Pakistan Air Force] , the ISI [the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency], and the Intelligence Bureau.”

“To be completely honest, I don't even think it matters who sits on the commission. The Army is going to define the final outcome and control the results of the report,” says Siddiqa.

Hamid Gul, the former director-general of the ISI, agrees.

“It would be interesting to see the final results of the report. But naturally, they would have to watch the national interest, since the country and the government would be pretty sensitive to the results of the final report. After all, elections are coming up,” says Mr. Gul.

The military is now riding a resurgence of popular sympathy following a US cross-border attack that killed 24 Pakistani troops and an avalanche that buried more than 100 soldier near the Siachen glacier in the contested territory of Kashmir

“There is no doubt that the May 2 attack led to some image bashing in the media and among politicians. But these recent events naturally result in a wave of sympathy,” says Dr. Rais.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.