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A police officer stands guard May 8, 2011, at the gates of Abbottabad's central police station, where officials announced recently that foreign guests cannot stay in hotels without written permission and should remain off the streets at night. (Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail)
A police officer stands guard May 8, 2011, at the gates of Abbottabad's central police station, where officials announced recently that foreign guests cannot stay in hotels without written permission and should remain off the streets at night. (Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail)

Republic of fables

Pakistan's reaction to Osama's killing shows it's a country of contradictions Add to ...

The young army captain standing in front of Osama bin Laden's house seemed genuinely perplexed by all the fuss. He did not particularly mind his latest assignment, guarding the vegetable fields on the outskirts of Abbottabad, amid the scent of wild mint and the rustling poplar trees.

But he could not understand how the bucolic landscape might have hidden the world's most wanted terrorist, only a short walk from the revered Pakistan Military Academy. It was impossible for him to believe that security officials had overlooked the high-security fortress in such a sensitive location.

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Nor did the captain consider for a moment that somebody in his own ranks might have hidden Mr. bin Laden. Thousands of his comrades had been killed by al-Qaeda-sympathizing local militants, perishing during sweeping offensives into the mountains or blasted on their daily commute.

This puzzle seemed to cause him physical pain. He squinted as if the sunlight hurt his eyes, before offering the only solution that gave him relief.

"This whole thing was a drama," he said, with intense conviction, as soldiers around him nodded with approval. "This is the only thing I feel certain about: Nothing happened here except a big show."

This is the salve that now comforts millions of Pakistanis at a time of fundamental crisis. They choose the magical world of conspiracy.

It's a remedy for what psychologists would call cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding two conflicting views at the same time. Pakistan fights terrorism; Pakistan helps terrorists.

The two statements would seem mutually exclusive, but it's only one of the broader contradictions within a country founded as a secular state but increasingly threatened by religious extremists; fiercely independent but badly reliant on foreign assistance, particularly from the hated United States; nuclear armed, but deeply insecure living next door to a more powerful nuclear-armed rival, India.

You don't have to worry about such contradictions if you indulge in fantasy.

Osama bin Laden died of natural causes years ago, in Afghanistan. He died in Yemen. He died with his hands and feet bound by plastic straps, carried into the house on a helicopter and executed there in an American operation to embarrass Pakistan. His own bodyguard shot him in the heart, but he survived with supernatural strength, until he requested that his loyal follower shoot him in the head.

These are not whispers in Pakistan; they are full-throated howls. They thunder down from the loudspeakers of mosques, they appear on the front pages of the biggest newspapers, they fill the screaming debates on prime-time television.

Such ideas frequently come from quasi-official sources: security officials, retired generals or other mouthpieces of the Pakistani establishment. Senators questioned the reality of Mr. bin Laden's death during a debate in the upper house of Parliament this week.

Perhaps the only conspiracy theory that never gets attention among Pakistanis is the possibility that their leaders are sowing confusion on purpose, pulling the woolly strands of doubt over their eyes.

HUNTING RABBITS

The profusion of theories about the Abbottabad operation has shifted debate away from the initial shock of discovering Osama bin Laden next door to a military camp. Media and politicians fixate instead on narrow technical issues - "How did U.S. helicopters evade our radar?" - or pontificate on a warped strain of geopolitical questions. They debate whether American masterminds selected this moment to unthaw the terrorist leader so they could choreograph an exit for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, or secure a win for President Barack Obama in the next election.

That diffusion of public curiosity, the dispersal of questions down a thousand blind alleys, makes it less likely that any official inquiry will have damning consequences for Pakistani authorities. The government announced that an investigation would be led by Lieutenant-General Javed Iqbal, a loyal assistant to the military chief, but did not release the terms of reference. It's unclear whether Gen. Iqbal will be permitted to ask questions about who helped Mr. bin Laden evade authorities while he lived in his Pakistani redoubt for six years, much less publicize the results.

A leading opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, called for a broader inquiry headed by the highest-ranking judges in the country, but he suggested a framework that would focus on why the military lacked the power to stop the U.S. incursion and whether any Pakistani officials had secret agreements with their American counterparts to allow such a raid.

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