Fatima Bhutto: Pakistan Is Playing Dumb in bin Laden Death

The Islamabad establishment has been feigning ignorance for years. Fatima Bhutto on the price ordinary Pakistanis pay as their leaders allow the country to fall apart.

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Photo: Farooq Naeem / Getty Images)

Plus, Elie Wiesel, Tony Blair, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and more reflect on bin Laden’s death.

For twenty four hours after Osama bin Laden was (or was he?) shot dead with two bullets to the face by Navy SEALs from the Joint Special Operations Command—“sort of like Murder Incorporated,” a former colonel explained to author Jeremy Scahill—no one heard a peep out of Pakistan’s president. Normally ensconced so securely within the president’s house in Islamabad, venturing out only for foreign junkets and dealing with domestic bothers from behind his fortified walls, President Asif Ali Zardari had met the news that the world’s most wanted man was killed two hours away from his nation’s capital with catatonic silence.

Instead of a televised address to the nation or a press release, he did what all hapless leaders do when in trouble— Zardari wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post. Claiming that his government had no role in the killing, he waxed lyrical about his personal travails. He applauded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seconded President Obama’s morally ambiguous speech, and resurrected nothing short of a stump speech for why his government should please be left in power because they really are very democratic even though Zardari himself was never elected to office.

It is not surprising that Pakistan’s president would insist he had no idea bin Laden was living comfortably in one of the country’s most famous garrison towns—the Pakistani establishment has been feigning ignorance for years.

If everyone was so clever and the U.S. had been privy to bin Laden's not-so-secret location since August 2010, how does one explain the ferocious drone campaign that took place from September to December of that year?

It takes a certain aplomb to insist that you didn’t know Public Enemy No. 1 was living in your country—and in a leafy city, not in a South Waziristani cave; that American helicopters entered your airspace, perhaps using one of your air bases at Tarbela Ghazi; and that the Americans had been planning to take out said Public Enemy No. 1 for the past nine months. The modus operandi of recent years has been to look the other way while keeping their purse at the open.

This is not unique to Zardari—when asked on local television about this business of Osama really having chosen Pakistan as his home away from home, former President General Pervez Musharraf responded vaguely that it wasn’t sensible for people to have harped on and on without the facts all those years ago. When asked, he always went with the same safe answer: I don’t know. For this sort of clarity and “cooperation,” Pakistan has taken just about $1 billion in American aid a year since 2001. But the money doesn’t only keep Zardari or Musharraf and their flunkies in power, it comes with a very serious price for Pakistanis.

If everyone was so clever and the U.S. had been privy to bin Laden's not-so-secret location (Pakistan claims to be, as ever, the last to find out) since August 2010, how does one explain the ferocious drone campaign that took place from September to December of that year? In the span of 102 days, an unprecedented 52 drone strikes were launched against Pakistan, none targeting Abbottabad or its environs. President Obama ratcheted up the drone war almost immediately upon entering the White House—ordering his first strike against Pakistan 72 hours after assuming the presidency. Some 2,000 Pakistanis (largely civilians) have been killed, none of whom happened to be bin Laden or any of his dastardly lieutenants like Mullah Omar or Ayman al Zawahri, and yet the U.S. defense budget has called for a 75 percent increase in funds to continue and enhance drone operations. This is a frightening development.

Pakistan’s trials don’t start and end with Osama bin Laden. On May 2, the commercial capital city of Karachi was on fire. Dozens of vehicles were torched and gunfire broke out in the busy Malir neighborhood—across the city, people were told to stay at home. The violence had nothing to do with bin Laden, but with the murder of a former member of parliament.

The country is gripped by bloodletting—Baloch dissidents have disappeared in the thousands, a sinister byproduct of our government’s engagement in the war on terror. The price of basic foodstuffs skyrockets as government industrialists and feudal landowners hoard basics like sugar and set the price of wheat far above international prices, all the while presiding over sectarian and ethnic violence not seen since the mid-1990s.

Maybe it’s not peculiar that the government claims to have known nothing about bin Laden's killing. They never seem to have any idea what’s happening in their country at all.

Fatima Bhutto is a graduate of Columbia University and the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, came out last year. Bhutto lives and works in Karachi, Pakistan