It’s not often that a government goes out of its way to plead incompetence, but that’s precisely what the Pakistanis are doing in the face of outside scrutiny over what appears to have been the longstanding presence of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. Islamabad has now hired a prominent Washington lobbyist — to the tune of $75,000 a month — to help mollify outraged D.C. politicos calling for a wholesale revision of U.S.-Pakistani relations. The line being peddled here is what Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani said recently on Charlie Rose: “We dropped the ball.”
The question, of course, is who exactly dropped the ball and whether Pakistani government policy is to blame. The governments of India and Afghanistan, two neighbors in the region whose relations with Pakistan have been troubled for years, have seized on bin Laden’s presence as a sign that, ultimately, terrorism in the region is patently Islamabad’s fault. The Pakistanis are offering desperate rebuttals — such as this:
[Washington lobbyist Mark] Siegel, referring to claims by the Afghan government that Pakistan must have known bin Laden’s whereabouts, said: “Must have known doesn’t mean knew.”
Haqqani also pointed the finger at Pakistan’s “eastern neighbor,” arguing that the country’s geo-strategic obsession with its longstanding rival India led to shortcomings on other fronts, including the military’s seeming inability to pick up Osama bin Laden from right under their nose. The phrase of the moment is incompetence not complicity, which is a sorry state of affairs for all.
The excellent Pakistani columnist Mosharraf Zaidi offers one of the more gloomy takes on the consequences of the “duplicity and dysfunction” at the heart of the Pakistani state and military, laying the blame at the doorstep of the ruling elites in a society that’s still mired in feudal inequities.
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.
Zaidi also rejects the possibility that there wasn’t some level of state connivance behind bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad:
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 [Pakistani army chief] General Kayanis and [current head of the ISI, the intelligence agency at the eye of the storm] 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.
What comes out of this is uncertain — some optimists suggest that, to save face, the Pakistanis will step up efforts to crack down on the terrorist Haqqani (no relation to the liberal ambassador in Washington) network operating along the border with Afghanistan and perhaps even locate and capture the erstwhile Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Omar. But it’s more likely that, as my colleague Tony Karon points out, for all the present bluster, little will change in this long, tortured dance.