Of tangled webs


A lie is always a running invitation to a bigger lie. The Pinocchio school of international relations may begin as a clever little nose, but quickly elongates into an embarrassing self-caricature: the lie walks in ahead of you. Within hours of Osama bin Laden’s death in a precisely planned operation that will enter intelligence lore, the Asif Zardari government had interred Pakistan’s credibility with Osama’s bones through a series of contradictory statements that did not even have the decency to adapt to emerging facts. Perhaps Pakistan believes that because it has become a battlefield, obfuscation is a legitimate tactic in the fog of war. As that brilliant doctor of human nature, Shakespeare, pointed out, what a tangled web we weave when first we set out to deceive.

Opportunism comes naturally to the Zardari establishment, and its knee initially jerked in a familiar direction, towards self-congratulation. The usual suspects rushed to television studios to declare that Osama had been killed in a “joint operation”, the crowning glory of the long “war against terror”. Envoys in London and Washington went into media over-drive. In London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan offered BBC a bluster-fib, unlikely to have been sanctioned by headquarters: that Osama had been lured into Abbottabad only a few days before, towards a trap with a splendid denouement.

The director of CIA, Leon Panetta, tore apart this fiction: “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets.” Separately, John Brennan, counter-terrorism chief in the White House, went on air to say, “It is inconceivable that Osama could have lived so many years without a support system.” They could not have been more candid: America believed that Islamabad would help its ward, Osama, escape to another haven if told about the planned assault. The CIA knew that Osama had been living in Abbottabad, within sniffing distance of Pakistan’s most important military academy, for about five to six years, ever since the house was built. Add two and two and you might conclude that the large home with high walls and barbed wire had been built specifically for Osama.

By Monday evening, Zardari was forced to admit that his spokesmen had been lying, and that “the events of Sunday were not a joint operation”. Later, perhaps pressurised by domestic lobbies, he even charged the US with violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. Here is a thought: sovereignty can only be violated if you have preserved it.

Zardari deliberately ignored a key question that has become a clamour. The ISI is not a stupid organisation. How come it did not know that the most famous face in the wanted world, a terrorist who provoked America into a major war (current cost, $300 million a day) was living, along with wives, a dozen children, and aides, for over five years at its doorstep? If Islamabad did know, as some voices now claim, why did Pakistan abjure its sovereign right to arrest Osama and put him on trial, instead of waiting for Americans to find out his whereabouts with inevitable consequences? The idea is redolent with possibilities. If the assassin of Salmaan Taseer was greeted with rose petals in Lahore and venerated across airwaves, how much adulation would Osama have generated during his trial? Pakistan could have repaid its national debt by charging an admission fee.

The pincer squeezes from both directions when you lie. The truth is uncomplicated. A few simple housekeeping questions will unravel it. Osama’s youngest child, from his latest (Pakistani) wife, is two, and was therefore born in Abbottabad. Who were the doctors? Did his dozen children go to school or were they privately tutored? Who are the tutors? Did his wives visit relatives? Did the children never leave home? Where did they go? How did they get money for groceries? Not from a local bank account, surely? Who paid the electricity and water bills? In cash or cheque? Osama was a kidney patient, as Pervez Musharraf confirmed in 2002. How did he get medication? This is hardly an exhaustive list, but enough to prove that someone in power, most likely the ISI, gave Osama succour and protection. America has a hundred reasons to mistrust Islamabad, and this will imperil the relationship for the foreseeable future.

Till he hunted down Osama, Barack Obama was merely President; he has now become leader of his nation. He has legitimised the Nobel Prize for Peace he so foolishly took when he had done nothing to deserve it. But triumph creates as much space for mistakes as defeat. Osama was only the most septic symbol of the problem that has widened in the past decade. The true danger is not from individuals, or groups, but from an ideology that has acquired firm roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is manifest in parties like the Taliban: a medieval interpretation of theocracy which seeks to seize power in both Kabul and Islamabad and turn the adjoining region toxic.

Obama needs to select his friends with as much care as he has chosen his enemies.


The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.



  1. M.J Akbar giving a piece of advice to Zardari, "Here is a thought: sovereignty can only be violated if you have preserved it."

    M.J Akbar, here is a thought for you. Indian government and its security organs could not preserve the sovereignty of India and hence attack on Indian Parliament, Kargil heights and Mumbai attacks happened so the blames lies with Indian Government and people of India. What do you have to say. Totally made a mess of your article with your foolish line on sovereignity. And one more thing, go read international law on sovereignity and UN charter and have more fun with your idea of preserving sovereignity.


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