There are as many opinions on what happened in Abbottabad this past Sunday as there are Pakistanis. Maybe more. But there is no sense whatsoever of where the government of Pakistan (or any of its major institutions, including the military and the ISI) stands on what happened — or stood when it was happening. The world has been waiting to see what Pakistan does and says, but the silence and incoherence from Islamabad has not just been embarrassing, it has been damning. Finally, key institutions in Pakistan have begun trying to piece a narrative together — unfortunately, it is way too late and the narrative itself is rather lame.
This is disturbing not only because the Pakistan government, military and ISI have a lot of explaining to do, but also because it is in their interest to do the explaining themselves rather than have someone else do it for them. Yet, up until it was already too late, Pakistan seems to have abdicated that responsibility. In fact, US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry seemed to be making the (half-hearted) case for Pakistan more than anyone in authority in Pakistan. Given that President Obama had informed President Zardari before the former gave his speech, one would have assumed that the latter and his media handlers would have their own statement ready to go on the air minutes, if not seconds, after President Obama’s speech. This is not about spin and PR, this is Diplomacy 101: Own and define the narrative as soon and as clearly as you can, before someone else defines it for you — especially if the narrative is likely to be unfavourable.
But the narrative itself is the least of Pakistan’s challenges. The problem is the facts on the ground and the government’s inability and unwillingness to explain them. Pakistan is used to the feeling of the world ganging up on it. But there are good reasons for the questions being asked of Pakistan by the world today. There are even better reasons for the questions being asked of Pakistan by Pakistanis today. Whether the government comes clean to the world or not, it is vital that it respond to Pakistanis. The first is a matter of national image (no trivial issue, that), but the latter is a question of citizen trust in national institutions (an existential element of statehood).
The fact is that there is a Pakistan case to be made on this issue. And it needs to be made to Pakistanis even more than to the rest of the world. It is a case that forcefully stresses that a world, and a Pakistan, without Osama bin Laden in it is a vastly better world than one with him in it — this is a villain who orchestrated events that have left more than 30,000 Pakistanis dead in extremism and terrorism. It is a case that legitimately highlights the sacrifices that Pakistan and Pakistanis have, in fact, made in the fight against terrorism. Most importantly, it is a case that honestly analyses what happened in Abbottabad — it is not a surprise that Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan and in a large urban area (just like nearly every other major al Qaeda figure captured) — but an explanation is owed on why Pakistani intelligence failed to make the connections that led to him, an explanation is owed on exactly what Pakistan’s official role in the final operation was (or was not), and an explanation is owed on exactly what Pakistan’s strategy on countering terrorism is, who is running it and why it is not working well enough or fast enough.
In a country and an ‘establishment’ as divided as Pakistan, this cannot be an easy conversation; it is not supposed to be. It is time to ask honest and tough questions of everyone. It is a necessary conversation that has long been needed; now is the time to have it.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2011.