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.



We Told You So

India is cackling over news of Osama getting whacked in Pakistan.

NEW DELHI — As Americans began celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden late on Sunday evening, India was waking on Monday to tantalizing proof that its long-standing rival Pakistan was either incapable of policing its own territory or actively safeguarding the world's most wanted terrorist.

After years of finger-pointing, indignant accusations, and saber-rattling toward its nuclear-armed neighbor and arch-rival, India had the ultimate smoking gun: irrefutable evidence of bin Laden's sanctuary in Pakistan. The entire country's schadenfreude was irrepressible.

"We take note with grave concern," said India's Union Minister of Home Affairs P. Chidambaram in a statement, "that the fire fight in which Osama Bin Laden was killed took place in Abbottabad deep inside Pakistan. This fact underlines our concern that terrorists belonging to different organizations find sanctuary in Pakistan."

In their rush to make use of the historic news as ammunition, India's home and foreign ministries completely neglected to congratulate the Barack Obama administration on a job well done in their statements.

Indian news channels, meanwhile, scrambled to determine the facts of the operation, with varying levels of accuracy. But their main message, based on whatever could be gleaned from the sluggish dispatches coming out of Washington and Islamabad, was that India's neighbor had finally been exposed as an untrustworthy country.

"Pak's double game exposed," the Times Now news channel blared. "Pak unmasked" was the coverage slug used by Headlines Today. "Does Pakistan really expect the world to believe ... that he was living so close to Islamabad without their knowledge?" barked an anchor on the NDTV channel. TV anchors did not fail to remind viewers that bin Laden's hideout was about 300 miles away from the Indian border, and less than 650 miles from New Delhi.

India has long accused Pakistan of failing to deal with terrorist activity within its borders, coddling militants, and fueling instability in Southeast Asia. Indian criticism of Pakistan's half-hearted approach to local terrorist networks reached a fever pitch following the 2008 militant attacks on India's commercial capital of Mumbai. The three-day rampage, which led to the death of 166 civilians, was squarely blamed on Pakistani terror groups, in conjunction with elements of the shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, Pakistan's top military intelligence agency. In the aftermath, the fragile peace process between the two nuclear-armed rivals was instantly shattered. Since then, New Delhi has missed no opportunity to demand that Islamabad hand over those accused in recent investigations and to call for Pakistan to stop providing a safe haven for militants.

"Once again I call upon Pakistan to dismantle the terror machine operating with impunity in territories under its control and to bring all the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to speedy justice," said External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna on the two-year anniversary of the attacks last year.

Chidambaram reiterated this demand on Monday as footage of Osama's hideaway rolled across TV screens.

Just weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted talks with his Pakistani counterpart during a Cricket World Cup match between the two countries, hailed by both sides as a welcome thawing and a kick-start to a stalled dialogue. Now, however, that momentary thaw is being decried as a concession to a criminal state.

"Osama bin Laden was living a luxurious life right under the nose of the Pakistani army," boomed Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Times Now. "Can we continue to pursue candyfloss-type cricket diplomacy with a nation that has harboured, protected, the world's most dangerous terrorist?"

"If there was a move to remove the trust with Pakistan, now would be the most difficult time to trust what is clearly a terrorist state," Goswami continued. "While India was engaging with cricket diplomacy, Pakistan was harboring a terrorist."

India, which has lately tried to build stronger diplomatic and economic ties with the United States after decades "non-alignment," has for years urged American presidents to get tough on Pakistan, which receives billions of U.S. dollars every year in aid and military support. Since the Mumbai attacks, Delhi has stepped up the pressure on Washington to assist in the rendition of Pakistani nationals that it says planned, financed, and directed the operation.

But Washington has appeared unmoved in the face of India's insistence, with diplomats urging India to "tone down" its rhetoric on Pakistani involvement in terror attacks in India, according to a February 2009 U.S. cable accessed by WikiLeaks. Now, India has the right to say, "I told you so," even if its suspicions may have been based on little hard evidence.

Several analysts I spoke with said they expected that the news of bin Laden's five-star villa in Pakistan would have little long-term effect on the Indo-Pak dialogue process, given that New Delhi already had suspicions that Islamabad was turning a blind eye to militants within its borders. The cold, hard proof may do little to change perceptions; and if India was willing to come to the table before, it may still be now.

And in fact, India's public schadenfreude may mask a more general pragmatism when it comes to dealing with its troublesome neighbor. India's lawmakers and military leaders know that it is only with continued assistance from Islamabad that other threats to the region, such as the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and, of course, al Qaeda, can be stamped out. In this sense, the discovery of Osama's compound may be less fuel for the international rivalry between the two countries than it is a brief moment of highly theatrical conflict, to be followed by renewed seriousness in defeating the continued threat of Islamist terrorism in the region. If nothing else, bin Laden's death should offer a good reminder of how much India and Pakistan still need each other.