Osama bin Laden died the day after Walpurgisnacht, the night of black Sabbaths and bonfires. Not an inappropriate time for the Chief Witch to fall off his broomstick and perish in a fierce firefight. One of the most common status updates on Facebook after the news broke was “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” and that spirit of Munchkin celebration was apparent in the faces of the crowds chanting “U-S-A!” on the night of May 1 outside the White House and at Ground Zero and elsewhere. Almost a decade after the horror of 9/11, the long manhunt had found its quarry, and Americans will be feeling less helpless now, and pleased at the message that his death sends: “Attack us and we will hunt you down, and you will not escape.”
Many of us didn’t believe in the image of bin Laden as a wandering Old Man of the Mountains, living on plants and insects in an inhospitable cave somewhere on the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. An extremely big man, 6 feet 4 inches tall in a country where the average male height is about 5 feet 8, wandering around unnoticed for 10 years while half the satellites above the earth were looking for him? It didn’t make sense. Bin Laden was born filthy rich and died in a rich man’s house, which he had painstakingly built to the highest specifications. The U.S. administration confesses it was “shocked” by the elaborate nature of the compound.
We had heard—I certainly had, from more than one Pakistani journalist—that Mullah Mohammed Omar was (is) being protected in a safe house run by the powerful and feared Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate somewhere in the vicinity of the city of Quetta in Baluchistan, and it seemed likely that bin Laden, too, would acquire a home of his own.
In the aftermath of the raid on Abbottabad, all the big questions need to be answered by Pakistan. The old flimflam (“Who, us? We knew nothing!”) just isn’t going to wash, must not be allowed to wash by countries such as the United States that have persisted in treating Pakistan as an ally even though they have long known about the Pakistani double game—its support, for example, for the Haqqani network that has killed hundreds of Americans in Afghanistan.
This time the facts speak too loudly to be hushed up. Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, was found living at the end of a dirt road 800 yards from the Abbottabad military academy, Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point or Sandhurst, in a military cantonment where soldiers are on every street corner, just about 80 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. This extremely large house had neither a telephone nor an Internet connection. And in spite of this we are supposed to believe that Pakistan didn’t know he was there and that Pakistani intelligence and/or military and/or civilian authorities did nothing to facilitate his presence in Abbottabad while he ran Al Qaeda, with couriers coming and going, for five years?
Pakistan’s neighbor India, badly wounded by the Nov. 26, 2008, terrorist attacks on Mumbai, is already demanding answers. As far as the anti-Indian jihadist groups are concerned—Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad—Pakistan’s support for such groups, its willingness to provide them with safe havens, its encouragement of such groups as a means of waging a proxy war in Kashmir and, of course, in Mumbai, is established beyond all argument. In recent years these groups have been reaching out to the so-called Pakistani Taliban to form new networks of violence, and it is worth noting that the first threats of retaliation for bin Laden’s death were made by the Pakistani Taliban, not by any Qaeda spokesman.
India, as always Pakistan’s unhealthy obsession, is the reason for the double game. Pakistan is alarmed by the rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, and fears that an Afghanistan cleansed of the Taliban would be an Indian client state, thus sandwiching Pakistan between two hostile countries. The paranoia of Pakistan about India’s supposed dark machinations should never be underestimated.
For a long time now, America has been tolerating the Pakistani double game in the knowledge that it needs Pakistani support in its Afghan enterprise, and in the hope that Pakistan’s leaders will understand that they are miscalculating badly, that the jihadists want their jobs. Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, is a far greater prize than poor Afghanistan, and the generals and spymasters who are playing Al Qaeda’s game today may, if the worst were to happen, become the extremists’ victims tomorrow.
There is not very much evidence that the Pakistani power elite is likely to come to its senses any time soon. Osama bin Laden’s compound provides further proof of Pakistan’s dangerous folly.
As the world braces for the terrorists’ response to the death of their leader, it should also demand that Pakistan give satisfactory answers to the very tough questions it must now be asked. If it does not provide those answers, perhaps the time has come to declare it a terrorist state and expel it from the comity of nations.
Rushdie is the author of 11 novels. He is currently working on a memoir.
Rushdie's Terror Reading List
Taliban by Ahmed Rashid. In the aftermath of 9/11, Rashid's book was one of the few authoritative works available for Americans to turn to. Long before that calamity, he had been doing the hard work on the ground that has made him the foremost authority on the region.
Osama bin Laden by Michael Scheuer. Fine, skeptical reporting. I assume there will be a new final chapter soon.
The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam. Takes us inside the lived experience of Afghanistan in its nightmare years as no journalism can. Aslam is one of the finest of the fine crop of Pakistani novelists.
Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer. Beautifully done memoir-reportage about Kashmir, whose people are trapped between jihadist fanaticism and the brutality of the Indian security apparatus.