The troubling aftermath of Bin Laden’s killing
Published in The Mail on Sunday (May 8th, 2011)
It was a scene familiar from coffee bars around the world. A student in designer clothes tapping away on his laptop while Pink Floyd’s Money blared out from a stereo and customers ordered iced Americanos and cinnamon cakes.
The affable 21-year-old updating his Facebook page was Abdul Wahhab Qureshi. He was born in France, spoke perfect English and was finishing his studies in Abbottabad. Like many others his age, he dreamed of travelling the world after finishing his studies.
Abdul cheerfully told me how he had lain awake five nights earlier and heard the thump of American helicopters as they swooped on the world’s most wanted man. So what did he think about the death of Osama Bin Laden.
‘Oh, I don’t believe he is dead,’ he said. ‘If someone was shot in that house, it was not him. You cannot trust the Americans, they have changed their story so many times already.’
Abdul is not alone in his disbelief. A survey found two-thirds of people in Pakistan share his refusal to accept Bin Laden’s death, despite confirmation by Al Qaeda. Even the country’s most revered lawyer told me ‘the ghost of Osama has survived his execution’ given the lack of concrete evidence, storing up problems for the future.
Such profound scepticism, shared by sophisticated students and lawyers as well as farmers, sums up the baffling nature of this beguiling and near-broken country. It is a place that in the past decade has become a byword for terror and has been called the most dangerous country on earth. It is neither of these things. Not yet.
But even its stoutest defenders say it teeters on the brink of collapse. And the unanswered questions over the execution of the man who became an icon of terror has opened a new chapter in its epic saga of death, destruction and decay. It is a saga in which we have a big stake, since its problems are so entwined with our own involvement in Afghanistan and the future of the global jihadist terror movement.
Pakistan has also become the world’s fifth-biggest nuclear power – bigger than Britain or France – making its instability all the more alarming.
But back to Abbottabad, ironically where the military men who control this arsenal were trained. A prosperous hill town two hours’ drive from the capital Islamabad, it is home to the army’s academy and famous for schools that have educated generations of upper-class children since their foundation by British missionaries.
Everywhere you see things that would have jarred with Bin Laden’s puritanism: the promotion of Pepsi, the Madonna hotel, the Shapes gym, advertisements for girls’ schools and a new fashion outlet called She’s Posh. Patriotic signs exhort visitors to ‘Be A Proud Pakistani’ – something made harder by the events of last week.
Bin Laden’s compound was found among cabbage fields in a new residential area on the edge of the military sector. A mosque is being built nearby, while graffiti proclaiming ‘Osama Town’ and ‘Osama is a martyr’ has been hastily painted over. Residents said the two sides of the town rarely mixed.
Like so many other guerilla leaders on the run, Bin Laden’s final years were pathetic, living as a virtual prisoner behind the 18ft walls and barbed wire with his three wives, perhaps nine children, some chickens and a cow. The adults never left the compound and the children were educated at home.
The clan’s living conditions were austere, with cheap bedding, an old television and no air-conditioning. The house had four gas connections and two electricity cables, back-up for the cold winters when snow fell, but fuel bills were kept under £15 a month. Such was the paranoia, that couriers would drive for 90 minutes before even putting a battery in a mobile phone, let alone making a call.
So what did happen on that Sunday night that shook the world? Pakistan and the US are supposedly allies, but this year their fractured relationship took several turns for the worst. First came the Raymond Davis affair, when an American freelance agent shot dead two locals, reportedly in the back.
The case caused a furore in Pakistan after Barack Obama claimed diplomatic immunity for the killer and, with the complicity of the government, smuggled him out.
Then came growing – and justified – anger in Pakistan over increasing use of drones to assassinate terrorists in Taliban strongholds on their side of the Afghan border. It has been estimated these infernal machines kill ten civilians for every terrorist, inflaming anti-Western feeling.
Last month, it was disclosed that General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, had told Washington to stop most of these flights and expel some operatives. US officials refused, claiming they were protecting American citizens, but were on the backfoot since operating in sovereign Pakistani territory.
In recent weeks, a string of US officials and senior generals visited Pakistan to discuss the matter. There were three high-profile US military visits in seven days at the end of last month, culminating with the arrival of General David Petraeus, the next CIA chief.
Petraeus and Kayani met at a heavily guarded airbase. Afterwards, the US embassy underlined the pair’s close personal rapport. This was just seven days before Bin Laden’s killing.
Sources say Petraeus tipped off the Pakistani military leader about the imminent raid and insist Kayani kept the information to himself. This explains the lack of reaction to a military incursion so far into Pakistani territory, since Kayani would have had to sanction any response.
By humiliating Pakistan, the raid also took the heat off the US over the use of drones.
Furthermore, it has emerged that after President Obama called Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, Hillary Clinton twice tried to call the country’s prime minister, once before she went to bed, and again after waking up. He refused to take her call, such was his anger at the nation’s embarrassment.
Pakistan’s leadership was paralysed by the killing. The world accused them either of complicity in hiding Bin Laden or incompetence in not knowing the terrorist leader was in a garrison town near the capital. Pakistan was in uproar that the military, supposedly the one arm of the state that functioned, had not noticed a foreign power flying in and staging a gunfight in its backyard.
‘The people’s trust has been blown away,’ an air force vice-marshal told me. ‘Our military is a beacon for the rest of the country. This is not just the humiliation of the military, but of every Pakistani. The last hope is all gone. We are very ashamed.’
Politics in Pakistan is a modern form of feudalism, the bigger parties’ family fiefdoms erected on corruption and patronage. The president, husband of the murdered Benazir Bhutto, is a one-time playboy who avoided a theft trial in Britain by pleading mental insanity. ‘He screwed Benazir and now he is screwing our country,’ was one of the kinder comments I heard about him.
At the heart of everything lies the shadowy presence of the military.
The problem for the West is twofold. Firstly, while concentrating on the conflict in Afghanistan, we ignored the way the struggle exploded over the border in Pakistan. And secondly, the military has a history of helping track down terrorists, spending vast amounts of military aid, and then showing support to the insurgents attacking Western troops over the border in Afghanistan.
Partly this is down to regional politics and partly because the Taliban are seen as a resistance movement.
‘I’ll tell you why there is sympathy for them,’ said Mubashir Akram, a former political analyst at the US embassy and now a senior official at a security think-tank. ‘A girl was raped recently by Afghan soldiers while US troops stood outside, but when local people came with their guns to help her, the Americans turned on them. Thirteen people were killed. Imagine how many people that leaves with a grievance against the Americans?’
This is a pivotal moment – for the army that has been humiliated and for the nation in how it reacts to the death of someone loved and loathed in equal numbers. But for all the intense security at hotels, the endless roadblocks and the gun-toting soldiers, it is easy to ignore how hospitable most people are in this blighted country.
Even at the Red Mosque, scene of vicious gun battles four years ago, the hotheads were friendly after Friday prayers as they ranted about Osama and the need for vengeance.
‘He was a good Muslim who we will pray for. He is still alive in our hearts,’ said a 20-year-old, himself called Osama, before shaking hands politely at the end of our discussion.
There were barely 200 of them, while foreign reporters milled around looking for incendiary quotes. I watched as a BBC news crew carefully repositioned one young firebrand to have bearded zealots behind him to ensure the usual images of Pakistan were presented to the world.
Cut out of the picture were two teenagers laughing and nudging each other at their friend’s antics for the camera.
There have been more than 5,000 military deaths over the past decade, while a constant stream of suicide bombs, executions and assassinations slaughtered more than 30,000 others. This is more than ten times the number killed in 9/11.
Despite all this horror, Abid Qaiyum Suleri, director of Pakistan’s largest think-tank, told me that his British wife preferred the quality of life in Pakistan.
‘We are not a failed state like Somalia,’ he said. ‘The trouble is that we are on the verge of crossing the line to becoming one if we don’t get out of this crisis.’
A terrifying thought in the world’s fifth-biggest nuclear power that underlines the explosive legacy of Osama Bin Laden.