South Asia

Pakistan's army ridiculed after Bin Laden raid

A Pakistani man leans against a wall bearing the graffiti "Osama Bin Town" near the hideout house of slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden
Image caption Few people are surprised Bin Laden was found in a military cantonment

A text message doing the rounds in Pakistan reads: "For Sale: Obsolete Pakistan army radar; can't detect US 'copters but can receive Star Plus; only 999 rupees."

Star Plus is a popular television channel from India.

Another message says: "What a country! Even Osama is not safe here."

These messages are a reflection of the growing frustration among Pakistanis over Monday's raid in which a team of US Navy Seals flew by helicopter from Afghanistan to a compound in the northern town of Abbottabad, killed Osama Bin Laden and then whisked away his body.

For the first time in decades, the powerful Pakistani military establishment has failed to find an excuse to pin the blame on the "bloody civilians" who now control political power.

The army is not only suspected of having sheltered Bin Laden, it is also under fire for having failed to detect the raid.

So while few people in Pakistan are really in love with the civilian government, everybody knows that this time an explanation must come from the military.

Media 'complicity'

The military took three days to issue a response, and the most prominent part of its statement from the Pakistani point of view is the admission that it did not know about the raid.

There are few takers for its contention that it also did not know about Bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad.

The raid, and the army's admission, have given rise to a flurry of questions.

"Why do we spend more than $6bn (£3.65bn) annually on the army when it can't do its job," says Mohammad Ruum, a resident of Swat.

Image caption The army says it was informed about the raid after it took place

Mr Ruum's view reflects comments normally not heard on Pakistani television channels.

Pakistani media, though extremely critical of the civilian government, have traditionally steered clear of controversies surrounding the powerful security establishment.

Many even blame them of complicity with the military to destabilise the country's nascent democracy.

The military's role was first questioned in March in the aftermath of the release of Raymond Davis.

A CIA contractor, Mr Davis was acquitted by a Pakistani court after paying blood money to the relatives of two men he had killed in the city of Lahore.

While the civilian government made a few meek noises that Mr Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity, the general impression was that his continued detention was due to the army's intervention.

To many, his release came as a shock, and as evidence that even the military had bowed to American wishes.

Bin Laden's death has put the icing on the cake.

I spoke to a number of people to find out who they blamed for the security lapse on Monday, and why.

One ex-army officer in Islamabad said the fault lay with the civilian authorities.

"They are the ones who issue orders; the army only obeys. They are the ones who were caught sleeping," he said.

Military-militant link?

Others, while equally disillusioned with the civilian government, said detecting the raid and countering it was the military's job.

"This is what they are paid for, to defend the borders, not to run bakeries and banks and real-estate empires," says Nasir Khan, a resident of the north-western town of Nowshera.

Image caption Few people in Pakistan support Osama Bin Laden

Many people in Pakistan suspect a link between the military and the Islamist militant groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Those who live in areas overrun by Taliban militants over the last few years are sure there is such a link, though they may not have a tangible proof.

"In Swat, there was a time when we saw the army and the Taliban running their respective checkpoints literally yards away from each other," says Abdur Rab, a resident of Mingora. "People used to say, where there is army, there would be Taliban."

In the north-western tribal region, people have seen Taliban militants setting up bases close to military installations.

In 2005, when I was working for a local monthly magazine, Herald, we sent a reporter from Peshawar to cover a drone strike on a militant training camp in North Waziristan - a rare occurrence back then.

He came back with a picture that showed the destroyed camp at the foot of a small hill. At the top of the hill was an outpost of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.


Last year, local people in the Kurram tribal region led me to the remains of the Taliban's main command-and-control centre at a village called Bugzai, which tribesmen had overrun and destroyed.

For years prior to its destruction, Bugzai served as the permanent base of militant leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. It was from there that he ordered the continuing blockade of the main Kurram road.

Bugzai was barely 1km (0.62 miles) down the hill from the main Frontier Corps base, inside a British-era fort, which was responsible for security in the lower Kurram valley.

Few of these people are surprised that Bin Laden was found in a military cantonment, not far from Pakistan's top military academy, in Abbottabad.

These feelings are now gaining currency in other segments of the population, who are equally shocked that the Americans had found Bin Laden right under the nose of the military and defied Pakistan's seemingly impregnable defences to whisk him away.

There is no sense of loss or bereavement - few among the teeming Pakistani masses loved Bin Laden. The feeling is one of humiliation.

Most people dislike the US, and they feel their own army has let them down.