A Peaceful City? Scratching Beneath the Surface in Abbottabad
Part 2: The View of Osama's Allies
"I'm ashamed that I worked for an organization that is guilty of this," says retired Brigadier General Asad Munir. Munir was a high-ranking ISI official who was ultimately responsible for waging the war against suspected terrorists in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan. He was also responsible for the search for bin Laden.
Munir says that, when he was in charge, all operations were jointly conducted with the CIA. "We had the intelligence from the ground, and they had the technology," he says. "At the beginning," he continues, "I found it hard to believe that our people said they knew nothing about the mission to kill bin Laden. Now it seems to me that this really was the case."
Munir, 61, numbers among a select group of well-established former senior officials whose retired status provides them with a safe distance from which to cast a critical eye on today's Pakistan. After 25 years in uniform -- some still in their mid-40s -- they can enjoy the pleasures of retirement. In Shimla Hill, Abbottabad's upscale neighborhood, the magnificent villas and the SUVs parked out front attest to the additional benefits that can result from serving in Pakistan's armed forces.
The envy of normal citizens in this garrison city, who have to make ends meet with only a fraction of the officers' income, had long remained in check. Now that the elite have been disgraced, however, their silence has come to an end. "For 10 years, we fought against terror and against Osama bin Laden alongside the Americans. Then the target is there, and what do we get for it? Nothing but international criticism and ridicule," says Raja Kamra Khan, an eloquent politician whose house lies not far from bin Laden's hideout. "Why can't the government say if we were involved or not?" he asks. "Osama here? Nobody could have imagined that."
Indeed, despite the constant stream of images broadcast from Abbottabad by CNN, the BBC and al-Jazeera, the locals still refuse to believe that the head of a terror network spanning the entire globe could manage to elude the curiosity of his neighbors for years. "If a cow bears a calf around here," people here say, "everyone in the village knows about it."
Osama's Remaining Comrade-in-Arms
The government in Islamabad, meanwhile, is doing its best to avoid transparency. It doesn't want to share any of the responsibility for killing a man widely viewed in this country as the standard bearer of the Islamic cause. But it also doesn't want to look like Washington's clueless lackey either. Last Monday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik tried to free himself from this corner by telling Al-Arabiya TV that he only learned about the American raid "15 minutes after it had begun," while insisting that he had been kept in the dark about the mission's target.
This drama concerning Pakistan's identity and its duplicity vis-à-vis Islamist violence offers an opportunity for catharsis. But no one, it would seem, wants to take advantage of it. The country has fought alongside the Americans in the "war on terror" for almost a full decade -- even as some among Pakistan's elite tolerated the activities of radicals. Asad Durrani, a former head of the ISI and Pakistani ambassador to Germany, went on record recently as saying that the strategy is legitimate. Terrorism, he wrote, "is a technique of war, and therefore an instrument of policy."
A similar view is espoused by the man who starts to talk about bin Laden in a modest backyard apartment somewhere in Pakistan on this evening. The man was a close companion of bin Laden while the two waged jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan -- and they remained in touch with one another. Among Osama's long-standing comrades-in-arms, he is one of the last who isn't either dead or in prison.
Sitting cross-legged on his carpet, he says that even though Osama has been liquidated, his death will give rise to thousands of Osamas in every village and on every mountain. "An individual can be killed, but the ideology lives on," he says. "Because the roots are still there, the oppression, the murder and the unequal political treatment of Muslims by America and the Western world."
Visiting the Doctor?
The US government has released videos that make it look like bin Laden spent years idling in his house in Abbottabad. But the man says the videos are misleading. "He came and went," the man says. "This last time, he came back to Abbottabad because he wanted to get treatment. He still had problems with his left leg, which was wounded during the fight at Tora Bora. In addition, he recently became seriously ill, probably a hepatitis."
Less than 100 meters from bin Laden's house in Abbottabad is a villa belonging to a doctor named Amir Aziz. Fuel for speculation: A doctor named Amir or Amer Aziz was jailed in 2002 for providing medical assistance to bin Laden; he hasn't been seen at his job in Lahore for months. "Because he was temporarily in Abbottabad," reported a Pakistani parliamentarian. The army refuses to comment on suspicions that specialists in the military hospital in Abbottabad may have provided aid to Osama, their furtive neighbor.
"I would only visit the military hospital if I wanted to be killed," quips Mohammed Karim Khan, the highest-ranking police officer in the district of Abbottabad. "There are many who haven't come out alive."
His good mood is notable for the fact that he knew nothing about the biggest case in the history of his police department. Osama's helpers in the city? The arrest of the Indonesian Patek? The postal clerk Shehzad? The apartment rented by the CIA to observe Osama's compound? Never heard of it. "The army does all of that here," Khan says. "Our job is just to cordon off the area surrounding bin Laden's house."
Outside, in the narrow lanes of Abbottabad's bazaar, the merchants sit in their stalls as stoically as ever, arms and legs crossed like fakirs sitting on beds of nails. At the traffic circle in the city's center, a loudspeaker van is booming with the staccato demands of the Jamaat-e-Islami party that the "world's biggest terrorist," the United States, cease deadly drone attacks on targets in Pakistani territory.
Meanwhile, Father Akram Javed Gill sits in a quiet courtyard of a house off the city's main street talking of peace. The Catholic priest is in charge of the Parish of St. Peter Canisius, which has been here for over a century, as well as its grade school. It is the last of what were once several Christian educational establishments in Abbottabad; all the others have been taken over by the state or the army. It is thanks to these schools that the city's literacy rate is much higher than the national average.
But even in enlightened Abbottabad, the majority of residents doubt whether bin Laden's end can signal the beginning of better times for Pakistan. "We don't know what was really going on in this house," Father Gill says cautiously when discussing Osama's final sanctuary. The Christians in Abbottabad don't want to suffer because bin Laden was killed here. "This was a peaceful city," Father Gill says. "But now we've had to ask the police for increased protection."
Several years back, in the wake of furious Muslim protests, Father Gill had the walls raised around his church's property and the statue of Mary in its inner courtyard. But he has so far refrained from hiring a sharpshooter like the one that began crouching behind sandbags in front of St. Luke's Church a couple of days ago. Father Gill refuses to let the situation get him down.
At a quarter past ten, he appears for Sunday Mass wearing a bright-white alb and carrying a Bible under his arm. If you turn to Matthew 5:21, you will find: "Thou shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment."
Here in Abbottabad, it can be interpreted as a delayed warning. For Osama and for Obama.
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
- Part 1: Scratching Beneath the Surface in Abbottabad
- Part 2: The View of Osama's Allies