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Bin Laden raid one year later: Pakistan's Army untouched

The US Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden last May threw the Pakistan Army into international disrepute. But in Pakistan, the Army has rebounded.

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Pakistani boys play at the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 2.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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On the eve of the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani stepped up to give a short speech Monday at the Pakistani military's headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Kayani decided to use the occasion to announce the Army's position on the country's political climate. Pakistan has been rocked in recent days by the Supreme Court decision finding the prime minister in contempt, a ruling that the opposition is using to call for his resignation. 

“We [Pakistan's leaders] should always act in such a way, that our self-respect and dignity is enhanced,” said General Kayani, chastising the civilian government and civilian political atmosphere as a whole.

That the Army would feel free to comment indicates that the Pakistani military continues to put itself at the center of the country's political decision-making. 

Military rulers have run Pakistan for the majority of the country's history, and wielded enormous clout behind the scenes even during ostensibly civilian administrations. In the immediate aftermath of the US raid on Abbottabad, some Pakistanis wondered if the civilian government could seize upon the military's embarrassment to establish greater control over the military. Aside from some small shifts, the answer a year later is no. 

“When the raid first happened, the whole world was pointing fingers at [the military]," says Dr. Rasul Bakhs Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

"The international community was suspecting the Army of being in the know regarding Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. Locals were concluding that the Army was either incompetent or complicit. The right was angry that the Army let the US Navy Seals enter our sovereign territory. The leftists agreed, and added ... that Osama bin Laden's presence in an Army garrison town indicated that it was in bed with islamist militants,” he says. 

In the heat of that moment, defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa identified the May 2 raid as a unique opportunity for the civilian government to curb the power of the military. It was an opportunity that Pakistan only held once before in 1971 when the military lost half the country in a war with India that led to the new state of Bangladesh

Now, Dr. Siddiqa says, that ship has sailed.

“That was a very short window – no more than 48 hours, in fact. In hindsight, it leaves one wondering whether there was any window at all. To be honest, political forces were taken by surprise that day. I don't think they had a strategy that could deal with this opportunity,” she says.

Small victories for the civilian government

There have been small victories for the civilian government. In January, a tense row erupted between the Army and the civilian government over a leaked letter from President Asif Ali Zardari to the US. The letter expressed concern in the wake of the Abbottabad raid that the Pakistani Army was looking to overthrow his government. 

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