During his momentous address to the American people Sunday night, US President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda was killed by US Special Forces in the garrison city of Abbotabad, blocks away from the Pakistani military academy. Obama was careful not to put the blame on, or give credit to, Pakistan — the critical yet sometimes complicated US ally in the war against extremism. Instead he stopped at stressing the US-Pakistani relationship is vital to defeating al-Qaeda.
But as millions of people were glued to their TV sets, their Twitter accounts, and Facebook as the day’s events unfold, the big question on everyone’s minds remained unanswered: what was Pakistan’s involvement in the operation, if any? How could Osama Bin Laden live in a $1 million mansion adjacent to a Pakistani military academy? Where was Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI? Or did the ISI know Osama bin Laden’s location, but keep it from Washington?
Such questions remained unsatisfactorily answered by John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor. On Monday, Brennan discussed the ‘differences of opinion’ between the two governments over fighting Islamic militants, but added that ‘Pakistan has been responsible for capturing and killing more terrorists inside their country more than anyone else.’
Meanwhile, there were conflicting reports coming from the ISI. Earlier Monday, the organization had said the attack on bin Laden was a joint operation involving Pakistan forces and Pakistani helicopters, one of which crashed during the fire fight with bin Laden's bodyguards. Later on, an army official was reported saying, ‘it's unfortunate, but we didn’t know about the people resident in that compound.’ According to other accounts, military officials declined to comment, referring questions to the foreign ministry.
The foreign ministry for its part pointed out that numerous Pakistani lives were lost in the war against al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, including many along the Afghan border, going on for almost a decade.
‘Al-Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan,’ the ministry's statement said. ‘Scores of al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Pakistani men, women and children. Almost 30,000 Pakistani civilians lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last few years. More than 5,000 Pakistani security and armed forces officials have been martyred in Pakistan's campaign against al Qaeda, other terrorist organizations and affiliates.
‘It is Pakistan's stated policy that it will not allow its soil to be used in terrorist attacks against any country. Pakistan's political leadership, parliament, state institutions and the whole nation are fully united in their resolve to eliminate terrorism.’
Unfortunately, this is all the Pakistani people heard from their government. The TV programmes were left replaying Obama’s speech and recounting the prior day’s events. There was no word from the Pakistani president or ISPR, the military public affairs wing the following day. President Asif Ali Zardari wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, but as of the time of writing this hadn’t yet directly addressed the Pakistani people about the US operation.
‘Some in the US press have suggested that Pakistan lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism, or worse yet that we were disingenuous and actually protected the terrorists we claimed to be pursuing,’ Zardari wrote. ‘Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact. ‘
The silence of the Pakistani civilian government and military establishment has given rise to scores of conspiracy theories in Pakistan, ranging from those doubting that it was bin Laden who was killed in Sunday’s raid, to the ISI’s supposed involvement in harbouring him.
But arguably most dangerously, the silence is hurting the US-Pakistan partnership by inflaming anti-Americanism. The gap is being filled by opposition leaders like Imran Khan and political hopeful and former President Pervez Musharraf, who are criticizing the government and the military for not carrying out the operation themselves. Khan and Musharraf have deplored what they say is an American violation of Pakistani sovereignty (and have failed to condemn bin Laden’s complete disregard of the country’s sovereignty in the process).
Late Tuesday evening, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry came up with another statement on their website stating that ‘the Government of Pakistan categorically denies the media reports suggesting that its leadership, civil as well as military, had any prior knowledge of the US operation against Osama bin Laden carried out in the early hours of May 2, 2011’ adding that the ‘ISI had been sharing information with the CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009.’
However, these comments were too little too late. The days of silence had already given rise to a misplaced feeling among Pakistanis that the United States had infringed on their sovereignty. Such sentiments, and the recent events that prompted them, should be a wakeup call for the Pakistani government to look beyond short-term gain and to be honest with the people. After all, being an elected government makes it first and foremost answerable to Pakistanis and not to Washington.
Of course one reason for the delay could be that the Pakistani military may be hedging to avoid a Islamist backlash from those who admired bin Laden. Yet the civilian government and the army should set this aside and look at this as an opportunity to come together and present the Pakistani people with an explanation, preferably the truth, so they can rejoice rather than creating conspiracies.
And Washington should put to rest Pakistani conspiracy theories by releasing evidence of bin Laden’s death, through pictures, DNA tests or whatever, and partner with Islamabad so that it can be shared with Pakistanis.
Only together can Americans and Pakistanis finish off this war and banish the rumours that threaten to undercut this most significant of achievements.
Rabia Chowdhry is Vice President of Red Teaming Associates and Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.