Throughout our history, we have tended to forget lessons far too easily. We do not focus on them, we have short memories and we repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This tendency has, through the years, caused us both anguish and embarrassment.
Such embarrassment came again in Abbottabad in May 2011 as US Navy Seals raided a bungalow, pinpointed Osama bin Laden and his extended family and whisked him away, and then apparently, threw his body into the sea.
These events in a garrison town close to our capital were not known of to authorities in the country, who heard about them only after the raid had begun, while our own forces failed to detect the invasion even hours after US helicopters had flown into the compound and uniformed troops wielding guns had burst into the house occupied by Bin Laden.
Astonishingly, our own authorities and law-enforcing personnel did not even know that Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, had been located in this innocuous looking white house for years alongside his large retinue, including wives, children and assistants. Such intelligence lapses should simply not be tolerated — and the Abbottabad Commission has indeed pointed to a failure of agencies to coordinate and cooperate in this respect as a major reason for the farce.
Given the huge intelligence network that we maintain, at the expense of citizens, we must learn all that we can about how the presence of the al Qaeda chief was missed completely by us with not even a whisper heard from Abbottabad. The Commission, headed by Justice Javed Iqbal, has put this down to inefficiency by those at the top, as well as failures by subordinates working under them. These senior officials are, of course, eventually responsible for the acts of these teams on the ground and what they do.
The Abbottabad affair has been described by senior intelligence and military officials appearing on TV channels and writing in the press as the most embarrassing for the country since the events in Bangladesh in 1971. This can be argued in many ways and from many different directions. But certainly, all that happened should make us think a lot harder about what we are doing wrong and the meaning this has in the context of our continued battle against militancy.
Obviously, if we were unable to detect the presence of Osama in our very midst, questions arise as to how we will find other militant leaders. Indeed, these questions have already arisen. Many have asked why Mullah Omar is not yet in our custody. There are claims that he has been tracked down in Quetta and Karachi at various times. The same is true of other key leaders. We really have no way of knowing if this is the result of complete incompetence on the part of those responsible for our security or something else. In either case, the scenario is not at all a comforting one.
The detailed report by the Abbottabad Commission, unfortunately leaked out to the foreign media rather than made public officially, as should have happened in any democracy, suggests that bad management, a failure to follow rules and general slackness were largely to blame. This should not surprise us. We, after all, see precisely the same flaws in many walks of life, ranging from mundane civic matters to those involving the most sensitive affairs of state.
Clearly, we have a lot to learn and a lot to amend. But will we do so? It is hard to say, and past records suggest that we prefer to bury ugly details under the turf rather than attempt to tackle them and determine what should happen. Accepting our own faults — a key to correcting them — is simply not our strongest point. In this lies the reason for our many failures and the perception that Pakistan is a state capable of very little.
The fact that in the Commission report, US officials have been quoted as saying just where they believe Pakistan stands in their eyes, as a country that can be “bought with a visa”, should make us think a little harder about why we have fallen quite so low. The other remarks, apparently passed by Washington about us as well as the lies told by our own people, all recorded by the Commission from the testimonies given to it, are not very reassuring either.
Beyond the failure at the top levels, there are also more mundane matters to consider. These involve the issue of why proper records of houses, properties, their ownership and so on were not maintained and scrutinised. This matter, too, has been raised. Had the paperwork been properly kept, we may have known sooner who lived where and whether they should be allowed to do so.
The most important thing, now that the facts are before us in black and white on printed sheets of paper, is where we go from here. A deep think is, of course, needed about the working of the agencies and how they operate. Perhaps, this can be taken up at the major meeting on security issues to be held by major parties. But we must also consider why there is so little accountability and transparency in our state.
After the report was handed over to the then prime minister last year, the facts should have been put out before us to be considered and discussed. This did not happen; instead, we faced revelations through leaked information, again opening us up to further ridicule from around the world. Most importantly, openness can in itself be crucial to solving problems and tackling those that crop up in various affairs.
There have been far too many cover-ups in the past. It seems we have not learnt from these and continue to act in the same way even now. This can cost us very highly indeed in the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2013.
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