Salman Rushdie: Osama Bin Laden’s Death and Pakistan’s Deadly Game
Are we really supposed to believe that Pakistan didn’t know Osama bin Laden was living there for five years? Salman Rushdie on why it’s time to declare the country a terrorist state.
Osama bin Laden died on Walpurgisnacht, the night of black sabbaths and bonfires. Not an inappropriate night 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!” last night 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 this morning, 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-Afghan border. An extremely big man, 6-foot 4-inches tall in a country where the average male height is around 5-foot 8, wandering around unnoticed for ten 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 Omar was (is) being protected in a safe house run by the powerful and feared Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) 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, the old flim-flam (“Who, us? We knew nothing!”) just isn’t going to wash.
In the aftermath of the raid on Abbottabad, all the big questions need to be answered by Pakistan. The old flim-flam (“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 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 the 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 November 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 have been made by the Pakistani Taliban, not by any al 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.
Salman Rushdie is the author of eleven novels—Grimus, Midnight’s Children (for which he won the Booker Prize and, recently, the Booker of all Bookers), Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, and Luka and the Fire of Life—and one collection of short stories, East, West. He has also published three works of nonfiction—The Jaguar Smile, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, and Step Across This Line—and co-edited two anthologies, Mirrorwork and Best American Short Stories 2008. He is a former president of American PEN.