POSTED: 04:21 a.m. HST, May 05, 2011
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan » The reputation of the army, the most powerful and privileged force in Pakistan, has been severely undermined by the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, raising profound questions about its credibility from people at home and from benefactors abroad, including the United States.
That U.S. helicopters could fly into Pakistan, kill the world's most wanted terrorist and then fly out has produced a stunned silence from the military and its intelligence service since Monday that some interpret as overwhelming embarrassment, even humiliation.
There is no doubt that the raid has provoked a crisis of confidence for what was long seen as the one institution that held together a nation dangerously beset by militancy and chronically weak civilian governments.
The aftermath has left Pakistanis to challenge their leadership, and the United States to further question an already frequently distrusted partner.
Some were calling for an independent inquiry, focused less on that the world's most wanted terrorist was discovered in their midst than on whether the military could defend Pakistan's borders and its nuclear arsenal from being snatched or attacked by the United States or India.
"If these people are found to be incompetent, heads should roll," said Zafar Hilaly, a prominent newspaper columnist.
Different questions were coming from Pakistan's neighbors and Western allies, including the United States. In Congress, lawmakers in charge of foreign military assistance delivered scathing assessments of the Pakistani Army as either incompetent or duplicitous, saying that renewed financial support was hardly guaranteed.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament it was unbelievable that Pakistani authorities did not know that bin Laden was hiding not far from the capital.
But the most urgent question of all is what to do about it, and whether the United States should continue to invest in a Pakistani military whose assurances that it does not work with terrorists carry less weight than ever.
Pakistani officials, who feel betrayed by the United States for not informing them about the raid, are responding more defensively by the day.
The biggest question for Pakistan is whether the event prompts a reconsideration of its security strategy, which has long depended on militant proxies, including groups entwined with al-Qaida.
U.S. officials are certain to use the fact that bin Laden had taken shelter in Pakistan to press the country for a clearer break from its past. Both sides have an interest in preserving some form of the status quo. Pakistan would like to keep the billions of dollars in aid that flow from the United States. The United States would like to prevent this nuclear-armed Muslim nation from turning more hostile, hosting terrorist networks and complicating efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. But the challenges ahead were revealed in how the outrage over the bin Laden raid has cut differently in Pakistan and the United States.
For the United States, it has raised the issue of whether any assurance provided by the Pakistani military can be trusted, including the security of its nuclear arsenal. The army has insisted it is adequately protected from extremists but has resisted security assistance from the United States that it considers too invasive.
"We can press Pakistan until the cows come home on its nuclear program," said Michael Krepon, a co-founder of the Stimson Center in Washington, which works on programs to reduce nuclear weapons. "But they are not going to do the things that we would like them to do that they don't want to do."
In Pakistan, commentators who consider the nuclear weapons the country's most valued asset have raised another concern: In light of the U.S. operation, are the weapons safe from a raid by the United States or even India?
Meanwhile, the chief of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, have remained silent about what they knew or did not know about bin Laden's presence.
They have both met with President Asif Ali Zardari since the U.S. raid, but no mention has been made in public of those discussions. Civilian politicians have been virtually absent.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani left for France on Tuesday but said Wednesday that he would cut short his trip and return home. Senior ministers in the cabinet failed to turn up in Parliament to offer any explanations Tuesday or Wednesday.
Instead, the Foreign Office and the information minister, apparently on orders from the military, issued statements intended to explain the shortcomings.
In Parliament on Wednesday, Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said the U.S. helicopters had evaded detection by radar "due to hilly terrain" and use of "map of the earth" flying techniques, an account that failed to comfort almost anyone.
The Foreign Office defended the fact that bin Laden was not detected because the high security walls at his house in Abbottabad were in line with a culture of privacy. These scant explanations fueled more speculation.
One of the military's biggest advocates, Kamran Khan, a journalist whose nightly television show garners big audiences, led the chorus: "We had the belief that our defense was impenetrable, but look what has happened. Such a massive intrusion and it went undetected."
Khan posed the question on many Pakistani minds: "What is the guarantee that our strategic assets and security installations are safe?"
In some Pakistani quarters, the failure of the army and intelligence agencies to detect bin Laden, or to do anything about him if indeed his presence was known, prompted calls for an overhaul of the nation's strategic policies.
"Instead of making more India-specific nuclear-capable missiles, the funds and the energy should be directed to eliminating the terrorists," said an editorial in the newspaper Pakistan Today.
The editor, Arif Nizami, said the U.S. raid made a mockery of the Pakistani military's bravura that its fighter jets could shoot down U.S. drones.
"You talk of taking out drones, and you can't even take out helicopters," Nizami said.
Some Pakistanis said they were more concerned about the fact that known terrorists were living in their midst than the violation of sovereignty by the Americans.
"The terrorists' being on our soil is the biggest violation of Pakistan's sovereignty," said Athar Minallah, a prominent lawyer. "If Osama bin Laden lives in Abbottabad, there could be a terrorist in my neighborhood."