23 May Osama: What the ISI Knew?
By Anjum Altaf
Opinion is divided between those who assert the ISI knew where Osama was hiding and those who believe it didn’t. This way of framing the situation obscures what might be the reality.
Some months back, before the discovery of Osama, I was reading a book in which the author narrates a discussion with a Pakistani, now an ambassador, that took place towards the end of the Musharraf period when the interviewee was out of favor. A remark attributed to the Pakistani left such an impression that I repeated it to as many people as I had occasion to between then and the discovery of Osama next to the military academy at Kakul.
I don’t have the book with me now but the following was the gist of the exchange:
The Pakistani was asked if Osama was in Pakistan. I have quite forgotten whether he answered yes or no, but what he followed up his answer with was seared on my mind. Referring to the time when the military ruler Musharraf had exiled both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif vowing never to allow them back to contest elections, he said something along the following lines:
If Benazir or Nawaz Sharif were hiding somewhere in Pakistan, how long do you believe it would have taken the ISI to ferret them out?
It is the logic of this statement that goes to the heart of the issue. Even if I were making up this dialogue, which I am not, it is the line of thinking that provides much the more plausible explanation of the situation that unfolded.
It is not whether the ISI knew or did not know if Osama was in Pakistan. It is more likely that those who mattered inside the ISI and outside did not wish to know if Osama was in Pakistan. Had they wanted to know, it would have taken them just as long to find out as it would have taken them to locate Benazir or Nawaz Sharif if either of them had attempted to ‘go underground’ in the country.
And this highlights the real issue in Pakistan that won’t go away with the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden. It is that at the level of the citizens, including the lower functionaries of all state institutions, there was and remains sympathy for some of what Osama bin Laden claimed he stood for. And at the level of the rulers, there was and remains duplicity in the attitude towards terrorism and violence. Osama benefited from the underlying ‘protection’ of both.
The combination of these two tendencies is lethal for the future of Pakistan. In both cases, it is an acceptance of dubious means to achieve dubious and not-so-dubious ends. In the case of citizens, Osama was in the vanguard of the fight against the oppression and humiliation of Muslims. In the case of the rulers, terrorism is an instrument of foreign policy to inflict pain on imagined enemies and a golden goose that opened the doors to otherwise unmerited importance and largesse. To both, an undiscovered Osama offered imagined and real benefits.
The death of Osama does not affect these tendencies in any meaningful way. Citizens continue to nurse their grievances against arrogant outsiders even as they balance their primal urges against the costs and the inconveniences of supporting their choice of means. Their anger is directed less against Osama and Al-Qaeda and more against their government and the institutions of state for adding to their humiliations. The rulers continue to trim their game-playing strategies having gone past the point where they could turn back with honor and indeed bereft of the intellectual ability to envision any other path for the future.
This leaves Pakistan in a deep hole that continues to be dug further because of the need to find or offer rationalizations for the means that have been endorsed. Indoctrination in schools, frenzied outpourings in the media, invocations of divine will, exhortation for the return to the purities of the past, emphasis on piety and morality, and plain dissimulation remain the order of the day. All these contribute to a refusal to face up to where the country finds itself, to understand how it got there, and to an inability to chart a new way forward.
Pakistan remains adrift in a fatal disengagement between rulers unwilling and unable to change their ways and citizens unwilling and unable to press for a new way forward. For a while at least, Pakistan without Osama would be much like Pakistan with Osama. What will make the pain unbearable for either side, who will fold, and when, remain questions without obvious answers at this time.
What does seem clear is that there are no non-violent internal drivers to force a decisive change of direction by either the citizens or the rulers. More punishment for either is unlikely to provide the right motivation. The only game-changer capable of snapping the stasis peacefully seems to be an external initiative that combines a face-saving way out for the rulers with the prospect of a future that is too good to spurn for the citizens. Something needs to be on the table that makes citizens ask why the state is mortgaging their future and a mechanism needs to be devised that can enable the state to embrace that future and survive. It is a tall order.