The streets of Karachi are deserted tonight. Earlier today, five people were killed and over 20 vehicles and a bank were torched. Businesses were shut down and the city’s streets were choked with panicked traffic as residents rushed home from work.
This chaos had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. It had to do with Karachi’s on-going ethnic and political violence, which flares up repeatedly and claimed hundreds of lives last year. It is a reminder that, despite the symbolic victory of bin Laden’s defeat, Pakistan faces severe problems beyond militancy that will not go away with his death. In the hours leading up to the fatal raid Pakistan’s president was busy cobbling together an unnatural political alliance to enable his government to pass legislation now that previous allies have parted ways with the ruling party. Meanwhile, and in response, a leader of the main opposition party was meeting with army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, pointing to the role the military still plays in politics. Gas shortages have shut down industry in Punjab province and protests against power cuts are getting violent. The fiscal deficit is ballooning as the government fails to put in place an effective tax net. Recovery from last year’s floods remains slow for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Gujranwala saw protests this weekend against the alleged burning of the Quran by local Christians, a development that could easily lead to their trial for blasphemy. Literacy remains shockingly low, and is even falling in some areas.
Yet despite these on-going crises that are arguably more relevant to the country’s fate than the death of bin Laden, whose ideological heirs can continue to wreak havoc in Pakistan without him, his defeat gripped the airwaves here just as it did in the U.S. – but for entirely different reasons. Ignoring or underplaying the fact that thousands of Pakistanis have died over the last few years in violence inspired by his ideology, conversations and television coverage have been obsessed with the level of Pakistani involvement in the operation. News anchors trying to piece together the sequence of events asked experts throughout the day if America had violated Pakistani sovereignty. Later in the evening two political talk show hosts on one of the most popular news channels asked their guests if the operation meant the U.S. will invade Pakistan now that ground troops had come into Abbottabad. On another station the host wondered if bin Laden hadn’t actually been killed earlier and whether yesterday’s operation was staged.
Nor were these the only examples; the general mood on the widely watched nightly political talk shows was one of righteous indignation and, sometimes, of scepticism. Forwarded text messages did the rounds claiming definitively that Pakistani radars had been jammed so that the U.S. helicopters could enter Pakistani air space. Through word of mouth a rumour spread that bin Laden had been killed somewhere else and flown in by helicopter to embarrass Pakistan. A number of conspiracy theories emerged in the space of a day, spawned by the gaping holes both the American and Pakistani administrations have left in the story of what really happened last night. Examined much less closely was the question of how bin Laden managed to hang out in a large house enclosed in tall walls and barbed wire within walking and visual distance of a military academy in the garrison town of Abbottabad.
Meanwhile, over the weekend four policemen were killed and a NATO fuel convoy torched. Just this morning a bomb attack intended to hit police took place in Charsadda, a town close to Peshawar that has seen numerous attacks by the Pakistani Taliban. According to some reports, a woman and three children died. Not every problem Pakistan has can be traced to bin Laden and his ideological legacy, but plenty of them can. Either way, conspiracy theorists and the Pakistani right wing – including much of the electronic media – have been too busy railing about violated sovereignty to care. Pakistan’s real problems, it appears, can wait another day.
Madiha Sattar is a senior assistant editor at the Karachi-based monthly The Herald.