Interview: How has Bin Laden changed the face of Pakistan?

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi

Now that it is known that bin Laden was living in Pakistan, many world leaders are waiting for an explanation. Rahimullah Yusufzai told Deutsche Welle Pakistan is under a lot of pressure.

Osama bin Laden has been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan Were you personally surprised about the fact that bin Laden was detected in Abbottabad near Islamabad?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I was surprised. I didn’t expect him to be in this place. I thought he could be in some big city like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda figures who were captured in big urban centers in Pakistan – Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. I didn’t expect that the most wanted man in the world would be hiding in Abbottabad. There was no Taliban or al Qaeda presence in Abbottabad. There was no military operation, there were no drone attacks. So I think he thought this is the place where nobody would suspect that he would be hiding.

What does it mean, the fact that he was found near Islamabad?

I think it means he was overconfident because he had lived there for some time and he thought that he could stay there in hiding. Or it’s possible that he was being protected by someone, some organization – we don’t know yet. This is going to be investigated. But I think that it is an embarrassment for the Pakistani government and military that this man was able to hide so close to the Pakistan military academy and also in an army garrison town where there is such a heavy military presence and nobody knew that he was there for the last several months or maybe more than that.

You are known to have interviewed bin Laden himself several times. From your perspective, what consequences will bin Laden’s death have for al Qaeda?

Yes, I have interviewed him twice but that was way back in 1998. He was still a wanted man and he didn’t stay long enough in one place; he was moving around. That’s why when I met him, he was not staying in the place where I met him. He came there and then left. I think that is the biggest blow yet to al Qaeda. He was the founder and the financier. So al Qaeda will not be able to recover from this shock and loss. Already al Qaeda had been much weakened and I think it’s now at its weakest ever. But I think that there might be maybe in the early days [following bin Laden’s death] some attempts by al Qaeda members, by the remnants of al Qaeda or its like-minded groups to take revenge. They may try to launch attacks against the US allies. But more likely, they could do more damage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they’re strong. I think al Qaeda will survive as a weaker militant and armed group. Maybe Dr al Zawahiri will take over as leader. But al Qaeda had already become irrelevant. You saw these uprisings in the Arab world in which al Qaeda and Osama had no role. So I think that this group now is clearly on the decline and I don’t think that now it can become a big threat.

What does the death of bin Laden mean for Pakistan on an international level?

I think Pakistan denying that he was there will not convince anybody and now nobody will believe Pakistan. Now everybody will say that other al Qaeda leaders and Taliban leaders are also hiding in Pakistan. So Pakistan will be under tremendous pressure to take action against them or maybe even allow Americans to do that. Because Pakistanis are still saying that ‘we don’t want any foreign troops on the ground.’ That’s why they have protested this unilateral American action against Osama; they say that Pakistan should have been informed. So I think that there will be more pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan is in a very difficult situation – there is an internal threat if it is seen to be cooperating too much with the US, then also there are problems because there is a really strong anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. And militants already think they will take revenge. They can’t harm America, which is far away and very secure. But they can clearly harm Pakistan. And also the public opinion has already gone against the government, is also very critical of the military. So we are facing internal problems and also external pressure from the US and its allies to do more in the war against terrorism. So I think this country is in a really difficult situation.

Is Pakistan now unmasked as being a country that favors terrorism?

I don’t think people will say that about terrorism. I think the difference of opinion between Pakistan and the US and the rest of the Western world is the policy regarding the Taliban. I think there was no difference of opinion regarding al Qaeda – Pakistan had actually taken action against al Qaeda. Why? Because al Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan. And it was behind bombings and Osama and al Zawahiri were also calling upon the Pakistanis to remove their own government to bring a change. So I think there was more love lost between al Qaeda and Pakistan, that’s why I think Pakistan and the US were on the same page regarding al Qaeda. But there are differences concerning the state of the Taliban in Afghanistan, regarding the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan wants there to be a political solution, that there are negotiations. And Pakistan wants to play a very crucial role in that. But I think Americans still want to defeat the Taliban. That is one difference. But otherwise, I think terrorism has affected Pakistan more than any other country.

So you think Pakistan will change its role in the fight against the Afghan Taliban?

I don’t know about that, because that is a different matter. But I think against al Qaeda, against Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani militants, the action will intensify, the fighting will go on. But I can’t say anything about Afghanistan because Pakistani policy, Pakistani contacts with the Afghan Taliban and with the Afghani network have not stopped. That’s a different ball game. I don’t know what is going to happen in Afghanistan but internally I think there is a clear determination to take action against all the militants whether they are local or foreign, whether they are Pakistani Taliban or al Qaeda.

So do you think the war in Afghanistan, the fighting in Afghanistan will shift over to Pakistani territory?

It has already shifted to Pakistan. There are so many attacks here, so many bombings, so many military operations, American drone attacks. So I think there is a lot of military activity and also attacks by the militants. The war is being fought in both countries. And the same number of troops are fighting in the two countries. 150,000 foreign troops, NATO forces in Afghanistan and 150,000 Pakistani troops fighting in northern Pakistan. So the numbers are the same and tactics are the same. I think the war is not limited to Afghanistan, but to AfPak, as the Americans say. So they consider this the same theater of war and Afghanistan and Pakistan are now being treated together.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist. He is the Resident/Executive Editor of the Jang group’s The NEWS international at Peshawar bureau and is an op-ed writer for the monthly Newsline. He is especially noted for holding the last interview with Osama bin Laden.

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