By B.G. Verghese
Much as in Alice’s Wonderland, things in Pakistan seem to get increasingly curious to the point that unfolding events and explanations strain credulity. The latest bewildering twist in the tale is the report of the official inquiry committeeset up by the previous government in Islamabad to look into the saga of the fugitive Osama bin Laden’s mysterious sojourn and killing by US Navy Seals in Abbottabad after nine years of hiding in Pakistan. The Commission, headed by Justice JavedIqbal and with three other members, specifically sought early publication of the Report. This was withheld and finally leaked to Al Jazeera last week minus a possibly critical page of evidence by the then ISI chief Lt. Gen. ShujaPasha.
Even at the time of the US raid to get Osama, the world wondered how his presence in the high- security garrison town of Abbottabad, near Pakistan’s prestigious Army Staff College went unnoticed and unchallenged when his abode there stood out like a sore thumb. His newly-constructed, illegally-built and hermetically-sealed “fortress” with high walls and barbed wire was bereft of external activity and officially registered as “uninhabited” despite harbouring Osama, his wives, children and aides, numbering 27 residents in all, since 2005. The native curiosity of neighbourhood residents and the prying eyes of Pakistan’s police and intelligence services were astonishingly never attracted to this unusual mansion.
The 336-page Report is scathing in denouncing the absolute incompetence, lack of vigilance, criminal negligence, lack of coordination and follow up by the civil and military authorities at all levels. The ISI chief, Pasha, is quoted as describing what happened as the “collective systemic failure” of a “failing state” suffering from a “governance implosion syndrome”. The Army is indicted for “exercise of authority and influence in policy and administrative areas for which it has neither constitutional nor legal authority, nor the necessary expertise and competence”.
The findings are damning and the blame generic. Nobody is specifically charged for utter dereliction of duty although the Commission was required to “assign responsibility”. The Report concludes that it is unnecessary to name those responsible “as it is obvious who they are”! No action is recommended against anybody but it is piously pleaded that “the honourable thing must be done” through a “formal apology”to the nation. When everybody is declared guilty, nobody is held guilty, let alone accountable. The thieves come out smelling of roses!
As for the US raid that killed Osama, this is described as an “act of war” on the part of the Americans and a Pakistani “intelligence-security failure”. The Pakistan Army and Air Force reacted only after the commotion, a helicopter crash, gunfire and the escape.The Commission attributes this to the Pakistan military’s blinding obsession with India resulting in a mistaken focus on its eastern border when the larger threat came from US drone and jihadi attacks from the west. This, of course, is Pakistan’s founding malaise – a weird commitment to what is called the “Ideology of Pakistan” that entails defending a narrow, radicalised, divisive and perverted form of Islam, and the “ideological frontiers” of Pakistan, which centres on Kashmir but leaves Pakistan without any positive identity of its own.
This message is slowly going home to the people of Pakistan. But the problem is to dethrone the military-mullah complex that has wrought so much havoc and is not yet ready to let go.
The third and not least important aspect of the Commission’s Report is the finding of the manner in which Osama bin Laden was killed. He did not die in combat. He was unarmed and did not seek to take shelter behind in wives. He did not resist and was executed in cold blood. The Americans will protest that Osama was the brain behind 9/11 and was killed in battle. None knew that he was unarmed and had no armed support at hand. That may be true, but the US must be held to the same standards it demands of others. Thirty bullets were pumped into the man. There was no time for dalliance. He was not asked to surrender. He was assassinated and buried somewhere at sea. End of story. They all lived happily ever after.
The Commission’s Report provides a convenient exit for all the dramatis personae: civil, military, intelligence, and the US. Had Osama been taken alive there would have been cause to bring him to justice in a trial in which some of his revelations could have proved very embarrassing as many skeletons in the US-NATO cupboard, much duplicity, deceit and double-dealing, might have come alive.
For Pakistan, a mysterious “they” were guilty but “we” are okay. Pakistan milked its strategic importance for the US in its War on Terror in every way. It used it as a cover to cosy up to the Taliban, furthering AQ Khan’s nuclear gamesmanship, cultivating jihadis for cross-border terror in India, and blackmailing the US to pay more and yet more for its perfidy.
It is perfectly possible the Commission’s findings are in order and singular incompetence all down the line was indeed responsible for the incredible farce enacted. Yet, can a more diabolical hypothesis be altogether discounted without deeper scrutiny? This is that the Pakistani’s knew or got to know where Osama was hiding but played along with him as a possible lever against the US and finally connived with the US which was by now ready to have him eliminated in a manner that might suit all concerned, with no questions asked. In other words, Abbottabad could have been a extravaganza carefully contrived and executed and televised as high-drama to lay to rest what remains an untold story. Everybody benefits.
The US and Pakistan will surely denounce such speculation. But theyhave lied too much and could be protesting too much. Pakistan has classically been in denial since 1947. It may be beginning to turn over a new leaf and the recent elections show some stirrings of democracy. Islamabad may therefore want to put this part of its past behind it and move on. The US too is poised to withdraw militarily from or thin down its forces in Afghanistan in 2014, trying to close a messy and costly chapter that has haunted it since Iraq. The jury is still out on these conjectures.
The “victorious” closing of the Osama chapter makes it possible for the US to open a new chapter. Pakistan in turn has had to swallow a bitter pill but could find in this a possible way to wipe the slate clean and make a new democratic beginning. The sordid episode should strengthen Nawaz Sharif’s hands internally. But the military-mullah complex has not given up and sees opportunity in the Afghanistan unfolding. India should nonetheless continue to hold out ahand of friendship to its beleaguered neighbour across the board even while holding Islamabad to its renewed promise not to encourage cross-border terror.