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Pakistan's Disconnect with Reality

Aparna Pande

The recent leak of the report of the Commission set up to investigate the May 2, 2011 raid and killing of Osama Bin Laden (also known as the Abbottabad Commission) has brought to the fore once more the growing radicalization and deepening cleavages within Pakistan. After reading the 337-page Abbottabad Commission report one is left with only worrying conclusions.

Pakistan’s security establishment appears to be living in the 1980s where India is still the existential threat, the jihadis are not that much of a problem and the civilians have no role in decision making. The civilians at all levels, from bureaucrats to political leaders, appear to be reconciled to their second citizen status in decision making and hence either do nothing or adhere to the security establishment’s line. And the wider population, including the youth, has grown more conservative and conspiracy ridden over the years.

In repeated interviews with top security officials what comes out is that India was the “main military threat,” the “direct threat” as it was “a country with which there existed a conflict over territory or some other political or resource issue.” The security officials’ response to the May 2, 2011 incident was either to refer to it as a “betrayal” by the U.S. or, as the former DG ISI stated, blame the civilians: “We are a very weak state and also a very scared state. We will take anything and not respond. It all boils down to corrupt and low grade governance.” What is not asked here is why blame the civilians when the military has been ruling the country and still controls security policy, domestic and foreign? And this was especially true during the time that Bin Laden entered Pakistan, lived in Karachi and move all over the country.

At regular intervals police and military officials asserted, “nobody imagined” that Bin Laden would be “living deep inside Pakistan or in any military town.” A serving major of the Pakistan army found it difficult to believe that Osama Bin Laden would have chosen to live in Abbottabad because the “high water level” of the ground was not conducive for building an escape tunnel. Further, a family as large as Osama Bin Laden and the two brothers who were his helpers would have required a large support staff (eg cook, driver) and they did not have that. These assertions would have more credence if these very officials had also not stated on record that high value targets (HVTs) had been previously caught in Pakistan’s cities including Karachi, Faisalabad and Abbottabad.

Pakistan’s move towards a society where radical Islamist militant groups and their charity counterparts have a deep presence has been well known for some time. This report only provides further justification for this view. It is stated by different people throughout the report how the Abbottabad area was home to “strong conservative religious and even militant” groups especially the anti-Shia Sunni militant group the Sipaha e Sahaba Pakistan. The local intelligence (ISI) officers stated that the area where the Bin Laden compound was located, Dam Tor and Nawan Shehr, were areas where Al Qaeda was “active.” Al Qaeda leader Abu Faraj Al Libbi had been found in a compound at a distance of less than a mile away from the Bin Laden residence.

Hence, even though the security especially intelligence personnel knew about the presence and growing spread of the radical Islamist groups they did not see them as a threat, rather continued to see them as assets in some form or the other. The seemingly contradictory mindset of Pakistani security personnel is exemplified in the views of Major Amir Aziz who had earlier asserted that Bin Laden could not have stayed in Abbottabad. Major Aziz later stated Abbottabad was the “ideal place” for someone like Osama Bin Laden to hide. Elaborating on his statement he remarked that the presence of “families of many terrorists” in this region was a surety against “suicidal attacks since terrorists would not like to harm their own families.” Further, according to the major, the bodies of martyred militants “were buried with great honor in Abbottabad.” Zia’s legacy of Islamization within the military apparently lives on.

What is visible throughout the report are the minimal role and resources with the civilian administration, from the local to the top levels. The Regional Criminal Investigation Officer (RCIO), Abbottabad had limited manpower and his office was like a “post office” just “receiving and passing on information” to the other agencies with no links to the local ISI and other intelligence agencies. The top civilian officials of the province and even the federal level were “cut out of the loop despite their clear responsibilities” which is a result of years of military rule whereby the civilians are considered only marginal to decision making.

While the report brings to the forefront some of these issues which have been plaguing Pakistan for a long time, what is also evident is the worldview that its represents. One discerns a surrealistic atmosphere, where people are more willing to believe that Osama Bin Laden was never there, that the only way he could be there was because the CIA placed him there and that there were CIA agents present all over Pakistan. That this view reflects that of the average Pakistani was evident in a Pew poll conducted in June 21, 2011 where 63 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of the American operation and a further 55 percent believed it was a bad thing that Osama bin Laden was dead.

Further, for the writers of the report the growing radicalization of Pakistani society and the civil-military imbalance are not as important as asserting their “anger” and “outrage” over the “violation” of Pakistan’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” by the U.S. The American action is termed “a criminal act of murder” and an “American act of war” without any thought for the fact that the person living in that compound was the world’s most wanted terrorist.

The report has brought to light facts that are important. However, it has also brought forth disconnect between how Pakistanis and the rest of the world view the same issue.

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