The Lies They Tell Us
Can the Pakistani government's web of deceit survive the death of Osama bin Laden?
ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Three hours after U.S. President Barack Obama announced Osama bin Laden’s death from the East Room of the White House, I found myself sitting in the Jadoon Shopping Plaza in Abbottabad, Pakistan — the resort town where the killing had happened eight hours earlier — talking with a man named Sohaib Athar. The owner of the Twitter account named @ReallyVirtual, Athar had just achieved a strange sort of celebrity as the man who had inadvertently live-tweeted the climax of the most expensive, most hyped, and, at times, most surreal manhunt in history. Several hours before the world would learn who had died in the Abbotabad night, he tweeted: "Since taliban (probably) don’t have helicpoters, and since they’re saying it was not "ours", so must be a complicated situation." Complicated indeed. When we met later, Athar said he "never imagined it would be bin Laden, at the bottom of it all."
One of the founders of a Lahore-based U.S. technology startup, Athar moved his family to Abbottabad two years ago. He was getting tired of the guilt associated with deflecting his six-year-old son’s constant questions about suicide bombings and terrorist violence, things that have become regular features of life for residents of Lahore. He chose Abbottabad because of its reputation for serenity and safety, and upon arrival decided to make his own contribution to the community: a sleek and modern café that serves quite exceptional coffee and plays great music, opened by Athar and his wife after they discovered that their new environs were lacking a decent gathering place for young people. Everything was going fine until Sunday night, when a U.S. military helicopter fell out of the sky over the city. At the time, Athar tweeted "The abbottabad helicopter/UFO was shot down near the Bilal Town area, and there’s report of a flash. People saying it could be a drone." Later, he wrote "Funny, moving to Abbottabad was part of the ‘being safe’ strategy."
If Athar’s story is deeply ironic, it also speaks volumes about the lives of ordinary and decent Pakistanis today. If the Pakistani state’s duplicity and dysfunction represent darkness and fear, Athar’s story — in which a highly skilled, educated young man moves from a broken Pakistani city to a beautiful one and attempts to improve it further — represents hope and light. His bewilderment at how violence has chased him is the bewilderment of a whole country.
The news of bin Laden’s death may have been greeted with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and patriotism on the streets of American cities, and with relative disinterest in the Middle East, which is still preoccupied with the sights and sounds of the Arab Spring and probably was never really all that enamored with bin Laden to begin with. But in Pakistan, where bin Laden allegedly made his home for years — some reports suggest as many as five — the killing of the founder and leader of al Qaeda is not the end of a story. It is, sadly and inevitably, the beginning of a new chapter in an epic saga of death, destruction, deception and degeneration in Pakistan. If Americans are confused about exactly what Pakistan is up to, they need to get in line. Pakistanis are more confused — utterly so.
This confusion has been carefully cultivated by a national elite whose singular focus is the accumulation of wealth, at all costs. In the near-decade since 9/11, Pakistan’s generals, judges, politicians, and bureaucrats have constructed two separate and equally effective narratives. To the West, they sold the bin Laden version of Pakistan: a fanatical nation, full of restless natives armed to the teeth with hatred and — if the West wasn’t careful — nukes. To ordinary Pakistanis, they sold the Ugly American version of the rest of the world: a big bad Uncle Sam and friends who were always burning Korans, knighting Salman Rushdies, and violating the Land of the Pure (the literal meaning of "Pakistan").
This duplicity helped keep the West sufficiently interested in the myth of "engaging the elite" — because of course engaging the people would mean courting savagery. It also helped keep the Pakistani people sufficiently hostile toward any notion of understanding or appreciating the West’s genuine and legitimate concerns and interests in Pakistan. But with time, this delicate waltz has grown harder and harder to sustain. The Pakistani military, for all its swagger, has either forgotten all the steps, or never knew them to begin with.
The notion that one fine day bin Laden adorned a burqa and made a trip over perhaps the most treacherous 180 miles of terrain in the world, from Tora Bora to Abbottabad, without catching the attention of Pakistan’s vast, richly endowed, and unaccountable military establishment is as ridiculous as any conspiracy theories now being peddled by Pakistan’s incorrigible right-wing hacks — with the most common version simply refusing to believe that he is dead.
It is even less likely that, as U.S. counterterrorism czar John Brennan claimed in a press conference today, Pakistani authorities did not know about the military operation that killed bin Laden until it was over. Abbottabad’s Bilal Town neighborhood where bin Laden lived and died was virtually around the corner from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul — Pakistan’s West Point, where future General Kayanis and General Pashas are learning to be officers. It doesn’t take 40 minutes to start to scramble planes, or get troops to Abbottabad, and there is no getting into the town by land or air without the expressed consent of Pakistan’s security establishment. This may not have been an official joint operation, but it was almost certainly a collective effort.
Maintaining these two fictions requires a great deal of creativity from both parties involved. In the first instance, Pakistan has to lie to enable the U.S. government to avoid looking like a first-timer in Las Vegas, getting hustled by a pro. In the second, the United States has to lie, to avoid implicating its chief partner in the dishonoring of Pakistani pride and the violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
On Indian television, the veteran U.S. diplomat Frank Wisner poignantly noted that the United States has to delicately negotiate "ambiguity" in its relationship with Pakistan. The problem for Pakistan is that it must also negotiate this ambiguity with itself. For a country that can’t pay its bills, or even manage its borders, this is a deeply ambitious order. Americans should not hold their breath for any dramatic changes in the short term in Pakistan.