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“Mother of all Embarrassments!”

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse ,May 13, 2011

“For a country with more than its share of misfortunes and sheer bad luck, we could have done without this warrior of the faith, Osama bin Laden, spreading his beneficence amongst us. He was a headache for us while he lived, but nothing short of a catastrophe in his death. For his killing, and the manner of it, have exposed Pakistan and its security establishment like nothing else.” This is what our passionate friend Ayaz Ameer wrote in his column on May 06, which has meanwhile been widely distributed via various Pakistani blogs. 

“The Americans came; swooping over the mountains, right into the heart of the compound, and after carrying out their operation flew away into the moonless night without our formidable guardians of national security knowing anything about it.” Ameer wrote what my son Saad dismissed as “ too good even to be a bed-time story.” 

And our august Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, in his address to the National Assembly, offered a narrative that hardly betrayed any sense of remorse or indignation over the American commando action. We are one, the ISI is a national assent, and a general would investigate the “intelligence failure” that caught us all napping, was the message. 

The speech, delivered with fumbles and partially incoherence hardly made any difference to the debate that has been raging ever since we got to know about the unlawful elimination of the world’s most wanted terrorist. Even within America itself, the assassination of OBL seems to have kicked up a controversy embedded in the legality of the action that is still surrounded by mystery. 

And the mystery became even more confounding because of the confusion caused by two narratives woven together in Islamabad and Washington. “The confusion has been carefully cultivated by national elite whose singular focus is the accumulation of wealth, at all costs. In the near-decade since 9/11, Pakistan's generals, judges, politicians, and bureaucrats have constructed two separate and equally effective narratives. To the West, they sold the bin Laden version of Pakistan: a fanatical nation, full of restless natives armed to the teeth with hatred and -- if the West wasn't careful -- nukes. To ordinary Pakistanis, they sold the Ugly American version of the rest of the world: a big bad Uncle Sam and friends who were always burning Korans, knighting Salman Rushdies, and violating the Land of the Pure (the literal meaning of "Pakistan"). 

This concluding paragraph in an article Mosharraf Zaidi wrote for the Foreign Policy Magazine illustrates the current day Pakistan, a country being ruled by a political elite that barely stands for the people who voted them into power. A country, where the military remains the predominant determinant of the foreign policy as the most organized institution that has driven the “security state notion” to-date, albeit with disastrous consequences. 

After over a week, and confronted by conflicting narratives emanating from within Pakistan about the circumstances around the American Navy Seals’ operation on a compound tucked in a hill-station near the Pakistan Military Academy in the garrison town of Abbotabad, most Pakistanis continue to seethe in anger and frustration. The sense of indignation is all-pervasive as a string of conflicting official accounts of the May 1st operation keep adding to the confusion and anger of the man on street. The anger and disbelief also flows from the official claims that the Americans did not give prior warning of the mid-night raid. 

The debate that has ensued since, particularly over the blogosphere is quite instructive and also reveals peoples’ frustration with the indifference and duplicity of the ruling elite. Most have also condemned the entire government for the “head in sand approach.” 

“The pain is that a terrorist who caused death of so many Pakistanis, civil and military, was there in sight and we didn’t bring him to justice. The Americans chased him relentlessly and caught and killed him because they care for their people – a concerned Pakistani skeptical of the Pakistani security establishment, Mohammad Bajwa, wrote to the popular blog Pakistan press on May 4th.” 

“And thereby putting themselves deeper in the hole!” wrote prominent writer Kamran Shafi on the same blog in response to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press statement released late May 3rd, which claimed Pakistani authorities, despite close intelligence-sharing with the US since 2003, were not informed of the get-bin-Laden-operation. 

“I am such a softie that I am beginning to feel bad for GHQ. All their super-clever ideas have led them to the mother of all double-binds. Between a rock and a very hard place,” Omar Ali commented on the same blog. 

“If the GHQ didn't know he was hiding in Abbotabad then it is even more dangerous. In January of this year an Indonesian Al-Qaeda operative was also arrested from Abbotabad. Didn’t this give the GHQ the reason to suspect what was happening? If they didn't then the basic question that arises is that what we the people of Pakistan are paying for in terms of a huge defense budget and on the perks and privileges of the generals,” asked Ayesha Siddiqa, one of Pakistan’s lead writers on the army and defense matters. 

Clearly, the OBL affair has shaken the myths woven around the professional capabilities of “7th largest army of the world military and the ISI. Both had so far benefitted from their size and prolonged interference in political governance as well as direct handling of the foreign policy. This also provided them an edge over the “bloody, inefficient civilians.” Now, the relationship is squared off. Circumstances have now painted them in the same light. And if one were to make an optimistic prognosis, the embarrassment arising out of the get-OBL-Operation has pushed the military establishment into the defensive. The strident disposition would, and should, now give way to introspection and a more critical analysis of what went wrong. (One must of course also caution that, the entire premise for this article is that the Americans cheated the he government and the army by carrying out an illegal clandestine operation at the cost of Pakistani sovereignty.)

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk