KABUL, Afghanistan — The unabashed glee with which Afghans have greeted the news that Osama bin Laden was found comfortably ensconced in Pakistan, just an hour’s drive from the capital, shows just how badly wrong things have gone between the two neighbors.
The presidential palace has released several statements since the raid that killed bin Laden, all of them with the same import and directed largely at the United States: we’ve been telling you for years that the problem is across the border, not here in Afghanistan. Go fight terrorism where it exists, and leave us alone.
Diplomatic officials inside the Foreign Ministry are busy writing cables with just the right degree of disdain for Pakistan’s duplicitous role in the entire bin laden affair, while ordinary citizens are spinning conspiracy theories like Rumpelstiltskin’s gold.
Many of the versions are mutually exclusive: perhaps Osama is not dead; perhaps he has been dead for quite a long time, and the United States has chosen this particular moment to release the information for reasons of its own.
Pakistan knew about the raid — in fact, it was Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI, that gave the CIA Osama’s location. No, Pakistan knew nothing, and is now exposed as the paper tiger it is.
I have not yet met a single Afghan who thinks that Pakistan’s upper echelons were ignorant of Osama’s whereabouts, although opinions differ as to how high the information went.
“Zardari may not have known, but then again, who is Zardari?” said one Afghan official, referring to Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan. “The military knew, that is for sure.”
The tough stance that the United States has taken on Pakistan has pleased the Afghan public to no end, as has Pakistan’s release of the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad, presumably in retaliation for the bitter criticism being leveled at its intelligence services and its military.
“Jang nakhunak,” crowed one young Afghan, who works in an international organization. Roughly translated as “fight tooth and nail,” the term is a schoolyard taunt used to egg on two bullies who have decided to brawl.
Certainly relations between Washington and Islamabad have never been worse; even the fallout from the Raymond Davis affair, in which Pakistan arrested a U.S. contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis, fades in comparison to the fuss over bin Laden.
But the prospect of the United States and Pakistan tearing each other to shreds makes very few uncomfortable in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan and Pakistan are now going to change places,” said one Afghan journalist, with, perhaps, more confidence than logic. “Pakistan will be the war zone, and Afghanistan will be the ally. This sheltering of Osama cannot go unanswered.”
He further predicted that the United States, now seen as omnipotent after the daring Abbottabad operation, would invade Pakistan, confiscate its nuclear weapons, and perhaps open up a corridor to the sea for its Afghan friends.
But cooler heads may still prevail, both here and in the United States.
In a roundtable televised a few nights ago, political analyst Wahid Mojda opined that, in the end, the United States would take no negative action against Islamabad.
“The United States now needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the U.S.,” said Mojda, who worked as a civil servant during the Taliban administration. “This is not the United States of 2001, when (then deputy secretary of state) Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan ‘back to the Stone Age’. No one is afraid of the United States now, and everyone understand that they are leaving soon anyway.”
The United States is reliant on Pakistan to get supplies to its troops; when Pakistan closed its border with Afghanistan briefly last year, dozens of U.S. oil tankers were burned where they stood. Almost everything from water to socks comes through the port of Karachi, and the United States would be hard-pressed to continue the war in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s cooperation.
So despite the loud talk in Washington, it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic shift in the U.S./Pakistan relationship. No one seems to want to walk away from the partnership with Islamabad, even if the relationship is less than perfect.
But Afghans are crossing their fingers that the current tension will raise their stock in the international sphere.
Afghanistan has long chafed under the paternalistic guidance of Pakistan. In the past few months, Pakistan’s government has reportedly advised Afghanistan to move away from the United States and seek closer ties with Beijing and Islamabad.
The media also widely circulated unconfirmed accounts that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Syed Ysyf Raza Gilani presented Afghan President Hamid Karzai with a proposal at the two leaders’ April meeting in Kabul. The document allegedly included having Pakistan approve the Afghan Ministers of Defense and Interior.
Both sides have dismissed the idea that Pakistan set conditions, but neither one is denying the fact that Pakistan has made it clear to Karzai that it would take a dim view of long-term U.S. military bases on Afghan soil.
The Afghan president often vacillates between outright hostility and fawning deference towards his eastern neighbor, but now he seems unable to decide where to direct his anger first.
Karzai, who largely depends on international support to govern his increasingly unstable country, has made criticism of Washington a major facet of his domestic policy. Most analysts dismiss this as posturing designed to remove the “puppet” label that Karzai has been saddled with since his installation as head of the interim government in 2001.
But his pique against the Americans has reached a new pitch lately, mostly in response to civilian casualties.
He has even tried to offload some of the responsibility for a recent Taliban offensive in Kandahar onto Al Qaeda, and by extension, the Navy Seas who killed Osama.
“Al Qaeda and its terrorist members who have suffered a major defeat with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistani territory have tried to hide this defeat by killing civilians in Kandahar and take their revenge on the innocent people of Afghanistan,” read a statement issued by the president’s office.
But, like Washington, Kabul cannot afford to walk away from Islamabad. The two countries are tied together by geography, history and, to some extent, ethnicity — Pakistan has a large Pashtun population closely affiliated with the Afghan Pashtuns.
As long as the war continues, the three uneasy allies are likely to be cemented together in an unhappy marriage of convenience, with each partner longing for a separation.