What a difference a year makes! Today school children play cricket on the ground where a year ago Osama Bin Laden lived…and died. The sun is shining in Abbottabad. But clouds fill the horizon for the United States-Pakistan relationship.
It will take a bold move by President Barack Obama to restore that once promising partnership. Nothing less will assuage the hurt that Pakistan felt after the cumulative effects of events of 2011 that took its relations with the United States into a downward spiral. An apology for the November 26 attack on two Pakistani border posts is a risky venture in an election year but so is the possibility of a rupture in relations with Pakistan at a key stage in the Afghan war.
No matter what Obama does, the onus is also on Pakistan if it wishes to move forward. It is fighting a costly war inside its own borders and is inextricably linked to the war next door in Afghanistan. It has already paid a heavy price in terms of lives lost and the economic costs of being a partner in the Afghanistan conflict. Al Qaeda still likely has its headquarters inside Pakistan proper. Meanwhile the Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP) continues to fight the state. It would do well for Pakistan’s military and civil intelligence services to begin to work together to find and capture Ayman Al Zawahiri before the Americans do. For if the US gets to him first, there will be a reprise of the Abbottabad raid. Pakistan has the resources, if properly employed, to track down the leadership of the TTP and decapitate that organization. Why have they not shown results? For their own sake?
In the hinterland, a more serious threat remains from the Punjabi Taliban, which is neither controlled nor controllable and a constant obstacle to improved relations with neighboring India and now the United States. Legal authorities in Pakistan suggest that changes in regulations need to be made to allow the government to apprehend and proceed against the leaders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant organizations. Changes in laws may take longer but are also necessary. The army reportedly sought such legal advice in the past year or two. Is the government also doing so and can the army and the government act in unison on this issue?
Meanwhile the National Counter Terrorism Authority still lies in limbo, inside the files of the Ministry of Interior. It is an opportunity that is being missed. A civilian-led and coordinated effort under the prime minister affords the best chance of establishing leadership in the battle for Pakistan that is going on in the streets and countryside of that embattled nation. It may also be time now to re-establish the National Security Council under strong leadership and supported by adequate staff and other resources so the government may benefit from its advice. And establish ownership of security matters. The streets of Karachi and Quetta are a daily battle ground this week. Tomorrow, it may be Lahore, Peshawar, or Islamabad. Will Pakistan continue to blame external forces for its inability to protect its citizens and serving as a safe haven for domestic and foreign criminals operating in the name of Islam?
Osama Bin Laden may be dead but the seeds of terror that he and misguided government policies of the past helped plant are sprouting all over Pakistan today. Who will lead the charge?
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.