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Monday, May 2, 2011

Pakistani reactions to bin laden death

Pakistani reactions to bin Laden death

As news of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's death reverberates in Pakistan, embassies here are shutting down, hotels are ramping up security, restaurants are reporting cancelled reservations and public gatherings like plays, concerts and lectures, are being postponed. The feeling in Lahore is familiar: it is like the dread that lingers over the city in the days after it has suffered a massive terrorist attack.

This time, though, the attack has not yet happened, and the dread spans the entire country. Pakistanis know they may pay a blood price for Bin Laden's killing. A purported mirror has been broken. Bad luck is to be expected.

Yet as I speak to friends and visit the market there is resignation , as well. After a decade of slaughter many here feel that terrorists are already striking Pakistan as hard as they can, and moreover that al-Qaida is no longer as powerful as other militant groups. The most common sentiment I hear is that nothing much will change.

That depends, of course, on how the US responds. Barack Obama noted in his speech that "counterterrorism co-operation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding." But he also said that "a small team of Americans carried out the operation" itself. Between these two assertions is a gap open to a horde of questions.

For Bin Laden was not killed in the tribal areas near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He was killed in Abbottabad, a place I last visited a few years ago. In my childhood, Abbottabad was known as a pleasant hill station, a rest stop not far from Islamabad along the fabled Silk Road that winds its way to China through the mighty Karakoram and Himalaya mountains. Rampant population growth and climate change have seen its desirability as a tourist destination decline.

But while well-off Pakistani tourists no longer flock to Abbottabad as they once did, it remains famous in the country for its proximity to the Pakistan Military Academy, located just a few kilometers away. Hunting down a wanted terrorist in Abbottabad is, in American or British terms, like hunting him down near West Point or Sandhurst.

So a debate is raging in Pakistan over what really happened. Conspiracy theories abound. Some say that Pakistani intelligence agencies uncovered Bin Laden but wanted the US to take responsibility for his killing in order to blunt a possible backlash against Pakistan. Others argue that it is inconceivable that US helicopters could have penetrated so deeply into Pakistani airspace without being detected by the Pakistan army and air force (in the past, US helicopter incursions near the Afghanistan border have been turned back with warning shots), and therefore that the operation must have been jointly authorised.

But there are other, truly frightening theories, such as that even in a town with as dense a military presence as Abbottabad, Bin Laden managed to elude Pakistani security forces, suggesting a remarkable degree of incompetence. More terrifying still would be if there were official complicity in harbouring him, putting Pakistan on a collision course with the US. Pakistanis must hope that neither of these is true.

Because Pakistan is suffering badly. Crowds are justifiably celebrating Bin Laden's death in downtown Manhattan, where a decade ago al-Qaida terrorists infamously massacred nearly 3,000 people.

Less well known is the statistic that since the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, terrorists have killed nearly five times that number of people in Pakistan. The annual number of Pakistani fatalities from terrorism has surged from fewer than than 200 in 2003 to almost 1,000 in 2006, to more than 3,000 in 2009. In all, since 2001 more than 30,000 have died here in terror and counterterror violence; slain by bombs, bullets, cannons and drones. America's 9/11 has given way to Pakistan's 24-7-365. The battlefield has been displaced. And in Pakistan it is much more bloody.

If Osama Bin Laden's death means that the war in south and central Asia can now begin to end, that America can begin to withdraw its forces from the region, and that Pakistan and Afghanistan can somehow rediscover peace, then one day there may be celebrations here as well.

In the meantime American, Pakistani, Afghan, and terrorist commanders will go on conducting their operations, the slaughter will continue, and human beings – all equal, all equal – will keep dying, their deaths mostly invisible to the outside world but at a rate evoking a line of aircraft stretching off into the distance, bearing down upon tower after tower after tower. Bin Laden is dead. But many Pakistanis sense the impending arrival of yet another murderous plane, headed their way.
Reactions by Pakistanis in Islamabad to the reports of American action on their soil have been mixed.

The government said it was a breakthrough against militant Islamism. US ties with Pakistan have been very low recently.

Former Pakistan President and army chief Pervez Musharraf said the US raid to kill bin Laden was a “violation of Pakistan’s borders” but added his death has positive long-term implications.

On the streets, lawyer Ghulam Murtaza was one of those who mistrust both governments. He said: “No outside forces should be allowed to enter Pakistani territory. It is a violation of our sovereignty, and we should give no country permission to do that.”

In the majority Muslim country’s largest city, Karachi, some insisted it was time for anti-Taliban action here to stop.

Residents Asad Ali said: “Now that the so-called head of the Taliban has been killed, the US drama and drone attacks in Pakistan should end. If the leader is dead then their organisation will be destabilised. So, America should stop the killing of innocent Pakistanis.”

Bin Laden was not the head of the Afghan Taliban, but of al Qaeda, though he was aided and sheltered by the Taliban.
Musharraf, who lost power in 2008, told Reuters that Pakistani intelligence ought to have known bin Laden was living near Islamabad. He also said al Qaeda supporters may take revenge against the United States and Pakistan.

Describing the killing as a victory for the people of Pakistan, Musharraf said: "It's a very positive step and it will have positive long-term implications."

"Today we won a battle, but the war against terror will continue," Musharraf said in Dubai, where he has a home.

Bin Laden died in the garrison town of Abbottabad, 35 miles north of Islamabad, where U.S. forces tracked down the al Qaeda leader who had eluded capture for years.

Musharraf said, however, that the operation had infringed on his nation's sovereignty: "It's a violation to have crossed Pakistan's borders," he said in an interview.

Musharraf also criticized Pakistan's intelligence apparatus for failing to find bin Laden, whose group staged the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

"It's an intelligence failure," said Musharraf, who quit office to avoid impeachment charges. "The intelligence ought to have known."

Pakistani authorities were told the details of the raid on bin Laden only after it had taken place, highlighting a lack of trust between Washington and Islamabad.

Musharraf called bin Laden's decision to hide near the capital, rather than in the remote regions of the country where he was thought to be hiding, "an intelligent act."

At the same time, Musharraf admitted that the attack came at a time when al Qaeda's influence in Pakistan -- a front line in the United States' fight against Islamist militancy -- had been replaced by growing Taliban influence.

"Osama is a person who declared war on Pakistan and many of the terrorist acts have been linked with al Qaeda, therefore it's a victory for Pakistan," said Musharraf.

Musharraf, who took office in 1999 through a bloodless coup, two years before the attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, repeated his pledge to return to Pakistan before the next elections, due by 2013. He said he did not expect to face arrest if he returns, but has admitted that he fears assassination attempts.


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