The Fractures That Breed Danger

05/25/2011 02:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011

Many in Washington are outraged that America's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, was hiding in plain sight just two hours' drive from Pakistan's capital. But calls to punish Pakistan are premature and petty at best, and dangerous at worst.

The problem is that there is no longer an entity that can credibly claim to be Pakistan. There is neither truth nor justice in the claim that the Pakistani people are responsible for hiding Mr. bin Laden. In fact, it is moot as to whether the Pakistani government itself can be blamed. The state seems to be at war with itself, the lack of trust between different arms of Pakistani governance rivaling the distrust between the United States and Pakistan.

Even more worryingly, the discovery of the al-Qaeda nest in hilly Abbottabad shows that the security agencies themselves--the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)--may have sustained severe fractures. It seems impossible that at least a handful of people in these agencies were unaware of the identity of the recluse living a few miles from Pakistan's top military installations. The others learned not to ask too many questions.

This brings us to the troubling issue of why the cover story was so plausible. That is, why did the ordinary citizens of Abbottabad avert their eyes from the mansion on the hill, believing inquiries to be harmful to their health? Most locals apparently believed that the compound housed either a Pashtun family involved in a tribal blood-feud or a drug smuggling operation. Anyone who has lived in a crowded Asian city knows that nosy neighbors, chatty household help and bribe-seeking municipal officials can pierce the most secretive veil. In Abbottabad, however, isolated mansions with 18-foot outer walls and close-mouthed residents seem to be not unusual, as well as off-limits to local authorities and civil society.

As we now know, Abbottabad is home to both modern, educated people with Twitter accounts and the world's most feared fugitives. It is this 'new normal,' in which Pakistan is split between a hard core of fanatical militants with tribal loyalties and transnational reach and its ordinary, hard-working and anxious majority, that should concern the rest of the world. Such fractures render a nation unable to cope with crises, and even the everyday tasks of administration and development.
So instead of heeding the voices that call for retribution, decision-makers in Washington should take the opportunity to press for long-term constitutional and administrative reforms in Islamabad, to cut off funding for discredited parts of the counter-terrorism effort, and to reassure citizens that the United States is not about to exit post-haste, triumphantly carrying away materials seized from the hideout. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right to emphasize in her recent interview that the United States would continue to cooperate with the Pakistan's government, military and law enforcement, and "most importantly" with the Pakistani people. While less deference may be due now that the formal authority's impuissance has been exposed, this is not the time to mock, point fingers, or rest on our laurels.