Pakistani authorities' vague policies harm public trust

Pakistanis are startled to learn from a government report what the rest of the world knew: that many of their leaders, especially in the military, were sheltering Osama bin Laden.

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The commission set up by Pakistani authorities to investigate the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May 2011 confirmed what had been already accepted by national security insiders in Islamabad and Washington: every military and civilian agency that could and should have closely watched the Bin Laden residence in Abbotabad, from the Inter Services Intelligence directorate to the local municipality, failed to do so.

All these institutions were incompetent or too lukewarm to react to the signs that bin Laden might be living in the town. Other agencies were too busy politicking to act on leads given by the Americans.

The commission's report raised no eyebrows because it focused on the chain of events previously revealed to readers of this newspaper by columnist Shaukat Qadir. The report did not change the story narrative.

Within Pakistan, however, the findings have caused bewilderment and stoked public anger. That is because the average Pakistani has remained blinkered about the realities of how militants operate, despite the passage of nine tragic years of insurgency and a body count topping 47,000.

Pakistan's war on terror has, in the large part, not been waged in the average Pakistani's backyard but in places not accessible by the national media. The war has not been a focal point of the country's collective political consciousness.

That telling ignorance is not a coincidence but a direct result of the confused narrative perpetrated by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its existence and hogged foreign and defence policymaking.

The military has become accustomed to staging black ops and waging proxy wars both within Pakistan's borders and in neighbouring countries. But the military is not used to scrutiny or accountability and is notorious for labelling critics as traitors to their country.

The impact of that propaganda approach, which breeds public ignorance, was demonstrated in a public opinion survey conducted shortly before the May general election. The survey showed that around half of Pakistanis do nothold anti-Taliban sentiments per se, despite the mayhem that has cost the treasury about $55 billion (Dh200 billion) and left it virtually empty.

From the perspective of the average Pakistani, the commission's findings were a call to silence a duplicitous national security narrative designed to incite Pakistan's citizens to develop paranoid perceptions such as: "Osama was never in Abbotabad. It's an American plot."

The commission's revelations were also heart-breaking for most Pakistanis, including the hundreds of thousands of expatriates toiling in the Arabian Gulf region and beyond, whose generous remittances - worth Dh46 billion in 2012-13 - keep hearths alight, futures bright and the dollar-starved treasury afloat.

The commission's chairman echoed Shakespeare's Mark Antony in saying it had not named those responsible "who are honourable men" but hoped they would publicly apologise because they are "honourable".

However painful, the public re-assessment of Pakistan's national security narrative has long been overdue and is absolutely necessary to change the country's downward trajectory. The value of such change is that it has underlined the need for honesty by the state, as has been highlighted by the initiatives of Nawaz Sharif since his June election to an unprecedented third term as prime minister.

First, Mr Sharif ordered the muzzling of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the militant-politician leader of the Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorists who savaged Mumbai in November 2008.

Then, he publicly ordered the military to end its complicity in CIA drone attacks against suspected terrorists in North Waziristan, aptly described as the "epicentre of evil" by the US president, Barack Obama. "The policy of complicity in drone strikes behind the scenes, and public protestations against violations of sovereignty and collateral civilian casualties cannot continue," Mr Sharif said, wagging his hand for emphasis.

Unfortunately for Pakistanis, his honest policy initiatives were not well received by the military. Mr Sharif, in effect, was attempting to seize control of foreign and defence policy, hitherto the military's exclusive fiefdom. The timing of these initiatives coincided with Mr Sharif's decision to accept the judiciary's demand that his administration prosecute Gen Pervez Musharraf, leader of Pakistan's fourth military coup d'etat in October 1999, on capital charges of high treason.

The emerging national security reforms debate has since descended into a blame game between the civilian and military arms of the state that has further confounded the Pakistani public.

Meanwhile, the media-savvy leadership of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in conjunction with its Pakistani Al Qaeda associates, have launched one lethal attack after the other against the public, newly-elected members of parliament and the security forces, killing more than 160. The insurgents have also injected themselves into the tit-for-tat violence between Karachi's competing political party militias and criminal gangs, pushing up the death toll there to about 500 in the same period.

These events support the general public perception that the national security situation has gone from bad to worse. Had the civilian and military arms been collaborating, the country might very well been celebrating.

In the past few months, after four years of counter-terrorism operations in the northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the military has TTP on the run.

But, as with the Bin Laden episode in Abbotabad, the average Pakistani cannot tell fact from fiction because it does not know whom to believe.

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad