NEW DELHI – The image, caught on home video, is a defining one: a hunched Osama bin Laden, in pathetic, lonely domesticity, with a grey beard and a blanket covering him like a shawl, surveying the television wasteland for images of himself. How banal this epitome of evil turned out to be.
That is why Osama’s elimination by US commandoes is such a marvelous case study. Start with this question: Was it poetic or divine justice that Al Qaeda’s leader, whose group, born in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988, was fathered by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and midwifed by the CIA, was finally killed by his figurative creators?
This question leads to two more that are anything but rhetorical: Where, in the end, does the fault for Bid Laden’s murderous decades lie? And will his death mark the end of global jihadist terrorism?
To be sure, street protests and a chaotic clamor of recrimination have gripped Pakistan, while dire threats float in the Internet ether and a bizarre indifference pervades the rest of the Muslim world. But events in the Maghreb and the Middle East seem to demonstrate that the streams of Arab and Muslim political life are flowing away from Osama’s murderous messianism.
That is why the crucial test today is what happens tomorrow in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The future of Pakistan, peace in Afghanistan, normalcy in India-Pakistan relations, and economic progress in South Asia all hinge on whether Bin Laden’s death dilutes extremism and dissolves intolerance or re-concentrates both.
The history of the region’s discord is a complex mix of ethnic, territorial, and existential fears, imaginary or real. But now that America’s mission in Afghanistan has, at least symbolically, achieved its objectives, a new chapter must open. To persist with the old “reordering” of Afghanistan would be sheer folly, dissipating whatever good might come from the end of Bin Laden’s blood-soaked career.
But the United States alone cannot bring peace to the region. A broader regional condominium, involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and, yes, Iran, must be brought into play.
For this to happen, however, the first step must come from Pakistan. It must now renounce terrorism as an instrument of state policy; stop employing groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba as strategic reserves against India; and abandon aspirations of acquiring overweening influence over the government in Kabul.
Of course, Pakistan’s concerns about Afghanistan are fuelled by a near-paranoid anxiety about India. This fear must be overcome, for the geopolitical challenge in Afghanistan is too great to allow such misbegotten apprehensions to persist.
Here, India bears a grave responsibility: it must assuage Pakistan’s valid security concerns convincingly. After all, there is no solution in retributory, panic-ridden responses by Pakistan, or in chest-thumping schadenfreude elsewhere. Now is the moment for South Asia to revert to its “natural balance,” gain breathing space, and recover its shattered peace.
To this end, and to facilitate a withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the region’s countries must create a credible template for reconciliation. The design for such a process cannot accommodate malevolently carnivorous forces like jihadist terrorism, which merely sucks credibility out of its principal progenitor, Pakistan.
Is this too idealistic, and thus unattainable? Perhaps, but the alternatives to doing nothing are infinitely worse: the continued condemnation of South Asia to the scourge of terrorism; almost one-third of humanity reduced to self-perpetuating penury; and a near-permanent US/NATO military presence, which would make Afghanistan (and Pakistan?) tantamount to a Western-controlled protectorate. Unless we accept our responsibility, more “Abbottabads” will surely follow.
Of course, no one questions Pakistan’s sovereignty. But both its identity and faith in its word are now doubted by almost everyone outside the country. Surely we can caution its people that they are sliding towards Talibanization, and that this threatens to tear their country apart?
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari proclaims that the war on terror is Pakistan’s war too, and that the country has paid a high price in waging it – not only the thousands of Pakistani soldiers and policemen killed, but also in terms of social progress foregone. But that is all the more reason why Pakistan must act now – if only to save itself. A new, complex endgame has already begun, because ideologies are harder to kill than the individuals who espouse them. So the central challenge is to devise a feasible new regional order.
For the US, whose military drawdown in Afghanistan is set to begin in July, a game-changing moment has been further complicated by Pakistan’s self-relegation from strategic ally to untrustworthy obstacle. But it would be unwise at this critical moment for the US to shortchange Pakistan. Some of the old relationship must be restored if Pakistan – until lately a pillar of US and NATO policy, but now with diminished relevance – is to have the confidence it needs to save itself.
Equally important is the now discernible fragmentation of Al Qaeda, which is why the respective national aims of Afghanistan, the US, India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, and the region’s other important countries must somehow be reconciled. Only a truly regional initiative can ensure a lasting end to the cruel and senseless Thirty Years War that has ravaged Afghanistan and frustrated South Asia’s hopes for peaceful development.
The US has a unique opportunity to assist in finding the correct balance in the region. As Philip Zelikow, a key adviser to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, put it: “All the major policies are ripe for re-evaluation. Leadership is defined by the way people use such moments.”