The ghost of bin Laden

Last Updated: Wed, Nov 07, 2012 21:41 hrs

It has taken the five-member Abbottabad Commission almost a year and a half to prepare a 120-page report on Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. Even though the commission has reportedly cleared the Pakistan government and the “establishment” (a euphemism for the Pakistan army and intelligence service) of charges of sheltering bin Laden, it is unlikely that the report will be made public. The enquiry reports of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission into 1971 war or the Shafiur Rahman Commission into General Zia-ul Haq’s death have not been made public so far.

Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul is among the 200-odd people who deposed before the Abbottabad Commission. His latest book, Pakistan: Before and After Osama, draws on his access to the commission, open-source research and inputs from Pakistani military and intelligence officials. The book adds little to the surfeit of material available on the May 2011 raid at Abbottabad, which led to the death of bin Laden. But Pakistan’s reaction to the raid is worth revisiting. The focus was not on how bin Laden stayed undiscovered in Pakistan for eight years, but on how the Americans could enter Pakistan undetected to get him. When three members of the National Assembly read prayers for bin Laden, they weren’t stopped by the deputy speaker chairing the session. President Zardari refused to speak to the nation on bin Laden’s death. Mr Zardari, the book says, told his colleagues: “Al-Qaeda has already killed my wife. I don’t want to get on their list.”

Mr Gul is sceptical about the American version of the Abbottabad raid, because of the US refusal to release pictures of bin Laden’s body. He also asserts, without any evidence, that the operation was launched with the passive co-operation of someone high in the Pakistani establishment. Clearly, till the US government declassifies its records, we will have to live with such speculation. Pakistani public life, in any case, bursts with bizarre conspiracy theories — with columnists and TV show hosts claiming that 9/11 terror strikes were a Jewish conspiracy, and the US was behind the attack on Malala Yousafzai last month.

While Al-Qaeda is portrayed as a dangerous enemy, Mr Gul stays true to Pakistani state narrative that “Taliban at best represented a Deobandi Islamist ideology and was largely restricted to ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar and his fighters were primarily focused on ‘liberation’ of their country.” But the Taliban would have stayed in power had Mullah Omar handed over bin Laden to the Saudis, or at least asked him to leave Afghanistan. Two ISI chiefs tried – General Ziauddin in 1998 and General Mahmud Ahmed two weeks after 9/11 – and the Saudis did, too, but Mullah Omar refused. Ironically, it was the ISI that introduced bin Laden to Mullah Omar, so that the two could train the jihadis being sent to Kashmir.

The book also furthers the other Pakistani narrative. By blaming the start of jihadism on American and Saudi support for mujahideens fighting the Soviet military in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s use of militants is portrayed as a benign tactic employed in Afghanistan, and only since the late 1980s in Kashmir. Scholars like Sumit Ganguly have shown that supporting jihad has been the principal means by which the Pakistani state has sought to ensure security for itself — from its initial use of tribal forces during the 1948 Kashmir war to its current support for a range of jihadi organisations in the region.

There is, however, little realisation that the very conditions that made Pakistan’s jihadi policy useful in the past now threaten the very survival of Pakistan. US announcement from Delhi of a $10-million bounty on Hafiz Saeed is dismissed as brinkmanship, “seen as a direct assault on the Pakistani security establishment for its alleged support of the LeT and Hafiz Saeed”; the Pakistan army cannot launch an operation in North Waziristan because “of the prospect of a massive backlash” inside Pakistan from the Haqqani network’s supporters and ideological partners — tens of thousands of students studying in religious seminaries across the country.

In addition to the “US-India-Afghan nexus”, the CIA bogey also gets full play. The Pakistani Taliban is called a creation of the CIA, for example; and that, because of Mr Musharraf’s policies, CIA operatives are controlling the show in North and South Waziristan. Militants who launched terror attacks on Data Durbar and Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrines were perhaps “enlisted by mercenaries commissioned by the CIA or Pentagon”. If it is indeed so, then why has the Pakistan army entered into a dozen peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban so far? This confusion emanates from the distinction made by the Pakistani establishment between the “good” and the “bad” Taliban. Pakistan needs to acknowledge that there is only one Taliban, the “ugly” Taliban.

Although unconnected from the narrative, Mr Gul often makes the right recommendations. Like the one at the end: “It is also high time for Pakistan to finally sever relations – whatsoever – with militant groups. ...and chart a new course on relations with countries like US, India and Afghanistan.” Nothing in the book, though, lends such hope. Pakistan after bin Laden remains on the same self-destructive course it was on before his death.

The writer is with the Takshashila Foundation

Imtiaz Gul
Roli Books; 312 pages; Rs 395

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