Islamabad is damned both ways: whether it admits to its hand in the US operation which killed Osama bin Laden or it says that it did not know that he was living at Abbottabad, close to Pakistan’s military academy. The first option may evoke an anti-Pakistan storm within and outside the country because Osama had come to represent anti-American sentiment among most Muslims. At present, people’s mood is sullen but not evocative.
The second option will be taken with a pinch of salt. Not many are willing to trust Islamabad that it was not aware of Osama, his wives and 13 children living in a mansion in the heart of Pakistan for the last five years. America’s anti-terrorism chief has already asked Pakistan to prove that it did not know of Osama’s whereabouts. He has alleged that there was a supportive terrorist network which needed to be exposed.
For the world, it is a serious matter which Islamabad must attend to in a serious manner. It would be difficult to sell what Pakistan envoy to the US has said: Pakistan is making inquiries about how Osama came to Abbottabad and lived without the authorities knowing it. Without a valid explanation, Pakistan would find itself in a tighter position as the days go by.
My inference is that top circles in the Pakistan establishment knew about his residence and Osama’s stay at this place. One allegation is that the ISI had built the huge mansion for him. It must be very large because four US helicopters ultimately landed in the compound. But whoever built Osama’s residence, the fact of its existence cannot be denied.
True, Pakistan’s sovereignty has been violated as former President General Pervez Musharraf has said. But the American commandoes, numbering 3,000, have been operating in Pakistan for many years. The four helicopters which conducted the operation flew from Ghazi, the Pakistan territory where the US has an airbase. Islamabad should not have allowed the Americans to enter from day one. My fear is that much more trouble is in store for Pakistan because Washington is determined to use it for its war in Afghanistan.
Whatever the rhetoric, I do not buy the argument that Pakistan knew about the operation. Islamabad is spreading this information – even through its foreign missions – that it knew about it and connived at the whole operation. This is not true. America did not trust Pakistan on the operation in any manner because it had burnt its fingers earlier.
A couple of times, the US had pinpointed Osama’s hideout and communicated to Islamabad before carrying out the operation. But all the times it turned out that Osama had left the hideout at the eleventh hour. The US State Department has openly said that Pakistan was not kept in the “loop.”
Pakistan may feel embarrassed over the statements by some top military echelons and former retired Foreign Service hands. One Air Marshall has said on one Indian TV network that Islamabad supported the US operation, but did not want to admit it because they were still in the midst of a war against the Al-Qaeda.
Washington may gloat over the elimination of Osama. Secretary of State Hillary said: “This is America and what it decides it carries out.” She should realise that Osama emerged because he was able to harness the hurt of Muslims who have felt America’s interference in their internal affairs. His elimination may ultimately end Al-Qaeda. But some other Al-Qaeda will come up – Taliban are already there – to garner opinion against the US and the West which look anti-Islam in their policies to the Muslims. Terrorism, they generally believe, is the term that has been tagged to them to give them a bad name. America and the West have to seriously consider how to allay their fears. President Obama tried to reach out to Muslims at Cairo but the words he used have turned out to be empty. Muslims expect him to give a concrete shape to the sentiments he had expressed.
When America emerged victorious in the cold war after defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the West believed that it had ended the ideology of communism. But this is not true because the expressions against globalisation may not have got coherence and the channel to ventilate them. But they are there in every country to be seen. Similarly, the Al-Qaeda may end but as an ideology it will appear in some other shape in some other countries.
India’s response was along the expected lines. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the whole incident proved that Pakistan was a haven for terrorists. He termed Bin Laden’s death a “significant step forward” and hope that it would deal decisive blow to the Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Home Minister P. Chidambaram hoped that the embarrassment would now compel Islamabad to effectively prosecute those involved in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorists attack. Of course, this will be the litmus test to judge Pakistan’s keenness to pursue the Mumbai terrorists.
Yet I wish our reaction had been more considerate. We should have talked about joint action against terrorists in the entire region and proposed a common ground. Of course, it is known that there are some elements in Pakistan operating against India with the connivance of Islamabad. A joint operation will eliminate official assistance, if there is any.
At this time when both the countries are in the midst of a positive dialogue, a proposal of a joint operation would have gone down well. People in Pakistan, brainwashed to hate India, would have seen a gesture from Delhi as a step to help Pakistan when it needs the help most. It would have also given the impression that its own government was in the wrong and not India. This is how normal conditions can be created for a sturdy friendship.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist.