Stopped by self-doubt

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

Pakistan's civilian government misses an opportunity to question the military establishment on Osama bin Laden's presence in the country.

in Islamabad

IF there is one conclusive fact about the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, it is that nothing adds up. For this, the United States is as much to blame as the villain of the piece', Pakistan. After conducting what has been made out to be a planned-for-every-eventuality operation, the U.S. failed to give the same attention to detail in preparing the post-operation narrative, thereby creating doubts about what went on in not just Abbottabad but right through the flight path of the American stealth helicopters in the early hours of May 2.

The frequent revisions by the U.S. of its account of what happened in those couple of hours have been questioned the world over and made the Americans look all the more suspect in the Pakistani mindscape, which is prone to devising conspiracy theories. What got lost in the feverish reporting of the days after the U.S. Navy Seals' 40-minute raid on the compound in Abbottabad was that there was hardly any visible support for bin Laden in Pakistan. Some of the religious right-wing organisations took out protests and organised ghaibana namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayers in absentia), but the turnout for even the most well-attended of these meetings was far lower than the numbers that had gathered for the demonstrations organised by the very same organisations earlier this year over the blasphemy law and against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative Raymond Davis, who had gunned down two Pakistanis. On the contrary, the funeral prayer led by All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir) on May 6 drew a big crowd of sympathisers.

Even on the issue of Pakistan's sovereignty being violated by the U.S. stealth operation, not many street protests have been held although it is a major talking point. Cynics would say that is because many of the organisations that take to the streets over various issues do so not out of conviction but as handmaidens of the military establishment to make things uncomfortable for the democratically elected government. Since this time it is the military and the intelligence set-up that are facing the heat of public scrutiny, these forces have not been unleashed. Analysts are increasingly asking why the ghairat brigade (jingoistic) does not whip up national pride about foreign terrorists being allowed to take control of tracts of land. If a U.S. operation to catch the world's Enemy No.1, who had also declared war on Pakistan, is a violation of sovereignty, so is the control Al Qaeda/the Taliban has over the tribal areas, many analysts argue.

Nonetheless, faced with bread-and-butter issues of survival, the average Pakistani remained indifferent, and this probably explains the poor attendance in the National Assembly on May 9 when Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani was supposed to take the nation into confidence on the dead-of-the-night events of May 2.

However, not much was expected from him, and no one really believed Gilani would take the nation into confidence in the real sense of the phrase. After all, this was an issue that related to the deep state and this was one instance the first since Pakistan lost its eastern flank in 1971 when the security establishment was caught with its pants down, as defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa put it.

It is the first time after 1972 that the civilian government has an opportunity to question the unlimited powers of the defence establishment. There is a need to partner with other political actors, especially with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which may be keen to rein in the armed forces, to create a mechanism for disciplining the institution. The fact is that if the political forces won't do it now, they may never get another opportunity again, she wrote in The Express Tribune on May 8.

By then, the moment had come and gone. In fact, the window of opportunity remained open for just about 36 hours, after which the civilian government padded up over and over again to bat for the military and, more importantly, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as bin Laden's presence in the country raised questions of both complicity and incompetence on the part of the men in khaki.

Not just questions, the armed services came in for considerable ridicule to the extent that jokes about their incompetence became a favourite SMS forward among mobile users. Needless to say, SMS advisories against forwarding such jokes were quick to follow with one lengthy message urging Pakistanis to be with us when we have been stabbed in the back. But the doubts have not gone away with these appeals or even the admission of intelligence failure by Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Yet, the political leadership has opted not to ask the armed forces searing questions though individually many politicians across the political spectrum hold the view that such an opportunity will not come again in the near future. Ever fearful of its own shadow, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) decided to err on the side of caution and opted for the safer route instead of risking its own government, said a much disappointed Imtiaz Gul, author of The Al-Qaeda Connection.

The politics of survival in a country where democracy is yet to take deep root evidently dictated the PPP leadership's response, as attempts to take on the military in the past have backfired on politicians. Over the past 25 years, two elected governments were removed after the political set-up ordered an inquiry into major disasters involving the Army. While the Ojhri camp blast in Rawalpindi in 1988 led to the ouster of the Muhammad Khan Junejo government four weeks after it ordered an inquiry into the incident, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed in an Army takeover after he decided to order an inquiry into the Kargil war.

When Nawaz Sharif, whose government had a bigger mandate than the present regime, could not save his dispensation on the strength of the ballot, what chance does this tottering PPP-led coalition have, more so with a President and Prime Minister as discredited as Asif Ali Zardari and Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani respectively? is the lament one hears often. This probably explains why the government has decided to entrust the inquiry into the Abbottabad incident as the military is calling it to the Adjutant General of the Army despite calls from various quarters for parliamentary oversight over the inquiry or a judicial probe.

To the PPP's detractors, this was yet another instance where the party thought only about its survival. Gul who finds it difficult to believe the U.S. conducted the operation without Pakistan's knowledge insists the political leadership should have seized the opportunity to question the Army and assumed part-ownership of the decade-old quest for bin Laden as the initial leads to his presence in Abbottabad were provided by the ISI. The government's response has just served to reinforce the bad boy image Pakistan has been tagged with.

No doubt Pakistan has suffered the most by the blowback effect of the war on terror. More Pakistanis have been killed over the past decade than all of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Pakistan's economy has taken a severe beating with flight of capital to the extent that no European or American carrier has been flying into this country for a while now despite the sizable Western presence here owing to aid work.

This is one side of the reality, and the world is acknowledging it. Invariably, every statement from the U.S. over the past few months has referred to the sacrifices made by Pakistan in the war on terror. Yet, Pakistan has not been able to convince the world about its sincerity in joining the war.


Getting into the minutiae of the operation in Abbottabad is akin to getting into a quagmire as every question leads to more doubts and pointless speculation that can at best enliven drawing room conversations. Basic questions are still not being asked, probably because of the fear of the omnipresent deep state' or the conditioning of minds by years of fear-mongering that is now taking on the shades of a persecution complex where the apprehension is that everyone is out to destroy Pakistan.

Even now, when Al Qaeda has confirmed bin Laden's death, there is no talk let alone debate about the need for Pakistan to rethink its entire security policy, particularly the quest for strategic depth that has boomeranged on the nation as a whole.

Shaken as we may be by the Osama operation, we can safely assume that we won't take this as a wake-up call. As the Foreign Office statement vividly shows, we'll hunt for lame excuses and hide behind false explanations, convinced of our ability to fool the world when the only thing fooled will be ourselves, wrote columnist and PML(N) legislator Ayaz Amir in exasperation in The News.

We will keep talking about strategic assets and good and bad Taliban, and about protecting our interests in Afghanistan, and we'll keep subscribing to theories of Indian hostility and encirclement, because these are the foundations on which stands the peculiar national security state we have constructed, forever threatened and insecure. If the separation of East Pakistan was not a wake-up call, if Musharraf's adventure in Kargil wasn't that either, it is too much to expect that Pakistan's comprehensive exposure in this saga, the Islamic Republic without its clothes, will lead to any radical departures in national outlook.

Ironically enough, this peculiar national security state, as Amir put it, got a reprieve just as it was coming under the scanner from none other than the primary reason for Pakistan making some of the choices it has made: India. The Indian Army and Air Force chiefs asserted that India had the capability to conduct similar surgical strikes in Pakistan.

True to character, Pakistan responded with belligerence. General Kayani warned that any misadventure of this kind will be responded to very strongly. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir went a step further by raising the spectre of terrible catastrophe though he tempered it with the establishment's understanding that the Indian leadership does not subscribe to the calls for surgical strikes.

As for the India-Pakistan peace community in Pakistan, the hawkish statements from India were a big disappointment. Not only does it shrink their space for promoting the idea of good neighbourly relations, but the general view is that India provided the establishment with a wonderful ruse to divert attention from its own follies and flaws. Worse still, the Indian generals provided the establishment the rationale for maintaining the national security state.

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