Their anger and frustration was palpable. The mobs who gathered in the streets across Pakistan yesterday rallied to mourn the killing of Osama bin Laden by American forces – and promised revenge. Hundreds of men spilled out of Friday prayers in the military town of Abbottabad, where the al-Qaeda leader was killed this week. Tyres were set alight and abusive chants directed at the United States rang through the streets.
Similar rallies were taking place in several other Pakistani cities – but it must be said that their scale and ferocity was by no means as great as the country’s militant religious groups had hoped.
As I understand it, one explanation for the muted reaction may be that Pakistan feels like a country on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It is a profoundly proud nation and its people are finding it painful to come to terms with the discovery of the world’s most wanted terrorist on national soil.
Some are taking refuge in denial, and, as I walked round Abbottabad earlier this week, few people – even those who had actually witnessed the US attack – were ready to admit that bin Laden had been even living in the town. For almost a decade Pakistan politicians and religious leaders have been adamant that the terror chief was outside Pakistan or, at worst, living in one of the remote tribal areas, and effectively outside the control of the state.
Even al-Qaeda took a full four days to acknowledge its figurehead was dead – only doing so yesterday, in a statement which also vowed to wreak dire retaliation.
No wonder that, when I stopped a group of schoolboys in Abbottabad, not one disagreed when Faisan, an intelligent 14-year-old, told me: “I don’t believe he is dead.” Indeed, a poll of Pakistanis yesterday said 66 per cent do not believe bin Laden has been killed.
But there can be no doubt about one thing: to the army – Pakistan’s largest and most powerful institution – last week’s event has come as a disaster. Since the country secured independence from Britain 63 years ago, the army has been the symbol of the country’s independence and virility. During an era when most other national institutions have failed, only the army has been seen as competent and honest by Pakistanis.
The discovery that bin Laden has been hiding under its nose near a military garrison is a blow to its reputation on almost as great a scale as defeat at the hands of the Indian army over Bangladesh in 1971. A lawyer in Abbottabad, Mohammed Iqbal, told me of his shock that a 700,000 strong army should have been unable to arrest bin Laden, and “foreigners should come here and take him away”.
The impotence of the Pakistan army was rubbed in again last night, when the United States led another drone attack on Pakistan soil, reportedly killing 10 militants in the remote north-western province of Waziristan.
The killing of bin Laden is also a major blow for the country’s president, Asif Ali Zardari. The operation was kept secret from Zardari because he was not trusted by his US allies. Meanwhile there are charges that the house was connected to the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI – an institution now privately regarded by the US as akin to a terrorist organisation.
So it is hard to exaggerate the mood of shock, and even shame, in the country’s capital last night. In this mood of insecurity and national flagellation, authorities are braced for revenge attacks. The United States has put restrictions on the movement of its personnel, while the British High Commission even cancelled the annual Queen’s birthday party event.
There is also a steadily growing anger at the American decision to dump the body at sea, with many asserting that this practice is contrary to Islamic tradition and gravely insults Pakistan’s 170 million Muslims.
It is this combustible climate which makes the White House’s contradictory and muddled account of bin Laden’s death dangerous. Within hours of the attack, John Brennan, the loud-mouthed White House counter-terror adviser, had informed Fox TV that the terrorist had died in a firefight with US special forces. He also claimed that bin Laden had used his 24-year-old wife as a human shield. Brennan implied bin Laden’s actions had revealed him to be a coward, saying that his conduct “just speaks to how false his narrative has been over the years”.
The White House has now been forced to admit that this account was false. In fact, the al-Qaeda leader was unarmed and did not try to hide behind his wife. According to the Al-Arabiya news channel, Bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter said US forces captured her father unarmed and alive – only to shoot him dead in front of his family.
If this account is true – and it is implicitly denied by President Obama, who insisted US forces would have taken bin Laden alive if possible – the Americans have presented bin Laden with a priceless posthumous propaganda gift. For it shows that the al-Qaeda leader was granted the death he wanted – killed by enemy forces, rather than submissively taken into captivity.
As well as this, Obama’s exultant claim that “justice has been done” has enraged Pakistanis. Many are asking why the terrorist leader was not made to stand trial – as Nazi war criminals were after World War Two – rather than being killed in cold blood.
Further confusion now concerns the level of Pakistani involvement in the operation that killed bin Laden. According to the United States, the Pakistan government only found out about the raid after it had finished. Many security experts say this account defies credibility. President Zardari may not have known, they say, but someone in the upper echleons of power must have.
The Americans say that the four US helicopters set off from the Afghan town of Jellalabad before entering Pakistani airspace. They flew for a full seven minutes before reaching Abbottabad, the military town where Bin Laden was hiding. The helicopters stayed in Abbottabad for 45 minutes while the operation was carried out, before flying back to Afghanistan with the dead body of bin Laden.
This account assumes a level of incompetence from the Pakistan which local security experts tell me is simply not credible. Even if the helicopters had evaded Pakistan’s expensive early warning radar systems – itself highly unlikely – they say that there is no way they could have remained unnoticed for 45 minutes in one of Pakistan’s premier garrison towns. Furthermore, even trying to avoid detection would be highly dangerous in case Pakistani fighter planes shot down the US helicopters.
Officials and diplomats told me that they accepted there had been no formal communication between the United States and Pakistan ahead of the raid, and that politicians were not informed. They also accepted that the Pakistan intellegience service – the ISI – was not formally told about it through the usual channels of communications.
But it was suggested to me that trusted individuals within the Pakistani defence and security establishment – and certainly the Pakistan chief of staff, General Kayani – were informed through discrete channels, most probably when General David Petraeus paid a surprise visit to Islamabad last week. General Kayani is now under bitter attack from Pakistan politicians and may face calls to quit.
Amidst the wave of international condemnation of Pakistan, one country has stood resolutely by its side. Neighbouring China has issued supportive statements, and there have been voices emerging calling China a “trustworthy ally” and demanding a change of allegiance towards the east.
This would mark a dramatic change of posture for Pakistan, which has regarded the United States as its closest ally and supplier of aid ever since the collapse of the British empire more than 60 years ago. [Pakistan has regarded the United States as a country ruled by the endlessly gullible, especially its generals, and has taken full advantage of that gullibility for more than a half-century]. But such has been the scale of humiliation faced by the military and political leadership in Islamabad that it would be no surprise if this week were indeed a fundamental turning point.
If that is not to happen – and if bin Laden’s death is not to become a seductive clarion call to jihadists – then the Pakistan people urgently need to be told the truth about how the terrorist died.
There is an important and relevant analogy here. After the death of Hitler in 1945, reports, fuelled by Soviet Russia, which falsely said that no corpse had been found when its troops entered the bunker - swiftly started to spread that the Nazi leader was still alive.
These reports were potentially very dangerous, so the British dispatched the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to prove that Hitler was indeed dead. The resulting book, called The Last Days of Hitler, became an historical classic and the basis for the cult film Downfall.
There is no doubt that many films will be made about the life – and death – of Osama bin Laden. But first the world urgently needs a new process of demystification, and find accuracy among the tall stories of bin Laden’s death. Otherwise, as I can see from the troubled streets of Pakistan today, he will become more dangerous in death than in life.