Revisiting Osama’s Lair

“Which way is Osama’s compound?” I asked the military police (MP) at the gate of Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). “I am new here, let me ask my colleague” replied the young man wearing the distinctive red beret of the MP. So off he sauntered to the kiosk, next to the security barrier to get an older hand to attend to me. “Turn left from, a few hundred yards from here and ask anyone about it,” were the succinct instructions given to me to one of the most sought after addresses till five years ago. Five years ago to the day, the US Navy SEALs had raided the place and ostensibly killed Osama bin Laden (OBL). There has been no independent means of verification that one of the most wanted men in the world was hiding there apart from the fact that some of OBL’s wives and children were recovered from there and Dr Shakeel Afridi, who had obtained DNA samples of his children under a sham immunization drive. Afridi was tried and found guilty of supplying information to a foreign intelligence agency and is serving time in prison. The US government wants him freed and is one of the preconditions for releasing 8 F16s under subsidized rates. Another irritant in the tortuous relations of the two countries that often claims to be allied in the campaign to defeat terrorism in the region.

There have been different versions of the raid. Most of these coming out of the western sources. The official Abbottabad Commission Inquiry instituted by the Government of Pakistan has been muffled like many other national investigations before. There have been leaks on the Internet but these come within the ambit of deniability. The accounts supported by the US Government like the one published by Peter Burgen titled Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad and No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden by a former SEAL 6 Team member. To add to this popular narrative a movie Zero Dark Thirty  was released in 2012. The action thriller film directed by Oscar winning Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal was based on information supplied by CIA. These books and the movie construct a narrative to underline painstaking American efforts to trace bin Laden and subsequently kill him in a daring raid. The only pictures released of the famous attack show a tense Commander in Chief Barak Obama, his secretary of state Hillary Clinton and top civil and military leadership huddled together watching the live feed of the operations in the war room. Obama went on to win a second term in the White house after the attack on Bin Laden’s lair deep inside Pakistan. Some claim that the raid was the decisive factor in Obama’s victory.

The official statements emerging from DC claim that the Pakistani authorities were deliberately kept in the dark because it was feared that it could spill the beans and let Osama slip the dragnet. Smarting from the snide remark by CIA Director Leon Pannetta that “Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent,” chose to remain quiet on this violation of Pakistan’s sovereign territory. The very next day an oped was published in Washington Post, in which President Zardari claimed that Pakistan provided help in locating Osama but did not participate in the raid. He poured scorn on the Al Qaeda leader and accepted President Obama’s endorsement for Pakistani role in tracking down bin Laden. Zardari then convened emergency talks with the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and security chiefs in Islamabad. The day after the raid, the Pakistani government declared that the United States had taken “an unauthorized unilateral action” that would not be tolerated in the future. The foreign ministry further said, “Such an event shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the United States.” One isn’t sure if these remarks after the horses had bolted the stables were directed against the US or were meant for domestic consumption. The national reaction remains one of dismay and bewilderment. Osama had over the years lost his appeal and many held him responsible for the country’s misfortunes. Why in God’s name, many wondered could their government hide this fellow in our country next to the military academy? A recent book by well known journalist Seymour Hersh claims that OBL was hiding in Abbottabad with full knowledge of the Pakistani government and it was being done to keep bin Laden out of the hair of the Saudis. Bin Laden, a Saudi national could have caused a major embarrassment for the Saudi monarchy in case he was deported to his home country.

Back to the road in Kakul, driving down towards Bilal Colony, I took the first turn left and entered the narrow winding road looping back towards PMA. Crossing a narrow culvert we took another left turn and stopped in a dusty alley. Five years ago the compound was in the open surrounded by agricultural fields. Some fields are still there but new houses are sprouting fast and thick defying all building laws and city codes. The compound had been razed to the ground to prevent the area becoming a memorial. Broken slabs of concrete littered the area. The local boys had cleared a patch to play cricket. In the fading light of a summer sun going down a match was in progress. A bedraggled girl, not older than 10 years, covered in dust was dragging herself on the ground, her useless leg protruding at an impossible angle begging for alms. “Did Osama live here?” I asked a passerby, who was on his way to teach the holy Quran in a nearby house. “Who knows?” he answered. “But then he could have been here because Hafiz Saeed organized his funeral in absentia in the nearby town of Haripur the next day,” he provided me a useful pointer as he rang the bell of the house, where he was to provide religious instructions. Moving further I asked the same question from a person. “It was all a drama. I don’t believe he ever lived here,” shrugged the man, summing up the feeling of many people. Time will tell if Osama was actually hiding next to PMA and leading a quiet life or had died many years earlier in the mountains bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan of kidney failure. Only God knows best.

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