Any thoughts of overnight flight fatigue disappeared very rapidly when the television in my Lahore hotel room reported the death of Osama bin Laden. So any ideas that he was already dead (as General Musharraf has claimed) or living in some isolated valley on the Afghan border were simply wrong. He was living 75 miles from the capital Islamabad, and less than a mile from Pakistan’s military academy.
Pakistan is a country invariably rife with rumours and speculation but my own first reaction was simply this. How could helicopters get to Abbottabad, so far north, including a Chinook, and then fly a thousand miles to the coast with Bin Laden’s body, without detection? They could not overfly Iran, and Afghanistan is landlocked. The unanswered questions remain, and there are indeed many.
The speculation in the remarkably free and open local media went into overdrive. To what extent were the Pakistani military or secret service (ISI) establishment in the loop, if at all or in part? Clearly, the politicians had no idea of the operation. How had bin Laden been lured to Abbottabad from the mountains – was it by the ISI which then betrayed him? We shall probably never know.
His death brought joy to every shopkeeper I spoke to, who believed his presence was like a dark cloud over the nation. Rampant inflation, constant power outages, insufficient water supply and a huge population surge have driven the economy into a massive deficit and debt cycle. Religious intolerance has been and is increasing, accompanied by fear in minority religious groups, and those who wish to protect them. Into this has stepped the USA which has provided $18bn since 9/11.
Virtually every Pakistani thinks that this has greatly enriched the personal wealth of politicians. It is widely believed that the remorseless drone activity in the border areas, despite official protests, is welcomed by the government as a quid pro quo for American largesse. Moreover the drone attacks cause much collateral death and damage and are widely detested. The British knew that the tribes in the border areas could never be tamed; the price to learn this was enormous. Many believe it is entirely counter-productive and the polls in Pakistan show this.
Bin Laden’s death produced the universal question: how will it impact Pakistan, some 35,000 of whose citizens have been killed by terrorist attacks – in the greater Lahore area over 2,000 policemen – in the past decade? Never before have I been to a country which is so apprehensive about its future. Addressing students at the University of Lahore, the theme of lack of opportunity, of being a pariah state, of international favouritism from the west flowed through like an Indus flood.
The attitude to the United States in the country reflects the ambivalence found elsewhere in so many Arab countries – fondness for American culture, yet underpinned by the view that the USA is hypocritically anti-Islamic, and in effect causes massive government corruption. Yet the dislike of the United States’ activity in Iraq and Afghanistan is counterbalanced by the view that India will pull the strings in Afghanistan, whatever ultimately happens there.
Unquestionably no other country compares with the perceived spectre of India, with its breathtaking economic change and its success, once it abandoned the Nehru socialist legacy which ossified India for so long. This is a source of dismay to Pakistan. Fear of India essentially means that there are some 480,000 men in the army, 300,000 in paramilitary units, almost as big as American forces. Military spending absorbs 17.5% of the State budget to the exclusion of essential services. Thus once the Americans leave Afghanistan, any Pakistan government has to have a grown-up dialogue with India. It simply cannot afford not to.
Where, if at all, do we fit into this picture? Firstly, there is huge pride in the increasing success of British individuals of Pakistani origin. The name of Sayeeda Warsi brought rapturous applause at the university. Family links between the two countries are strong. Surprisingly, there is still some nostalgia for the legacy of the education system, the railways, the buildings, the lack of corruption, and the careful way that the border areas were handled during British rule. Yet today there is virtually no tourism. Visas for nearly anywhere are extremely difficult to get so that many Pakistanis feel isolated from so many other countries.
Pakistan is a nuclear power. It occupies a crucial geo-political position, next to two immensely difficult and dangerous countries, Iran and Afghanistan, and two global players, India and China. If it were to fail the consequences would be incalculable and destabilise the whole region, and even possibly touch us domestically.
The country is even more and apprehensive in the wake of Bin Laden’s death. It was on the lips of everybody I spoke to. Whilst there was relief at his departure, there was universal embarrassment and humiliation at his capture by Americans, and the severest criticism expressed to me about the perceived dysfunctionality and incompetence of the whole government, military and security apparatus. Equally, somewhat limited demonstrations after Friday prayers showed that others felt angered by his capture and death.
Terrorism on the scale of the past decade did not exist pre-Afghanistan. So some sort of settlement there may well draw its sting. That will leave the country freer to deal with its massive economic problems and ultimately focus on the necessity to normalise its relationship with India. That is the view of optimists who believe that the winds of change in Arab countries are now blowing in their own country, particularly amongst young people.
It is easy to sharply and reflexively see Pakistan in black and white terms, understandably so, but we would be wise to look beyond this. Two words come to mind – tough love. The next few weeks and months will be critical and we will continue to have a particular interest in whatever transpires there.