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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 Daily Nawa-i-Waqt, a venerable and popular Urdu newspaper, devoted a colourful "special edition" to debunking the death. Its reporters examined the gas bills for the raided compound in Abbottabad and concluded that consumption levels were too low for the wealthy bin Laden family. The paper claimed that the body recovered from the house was too short - only 5-foot-6, they wrote - to qualify as his corpse. One article even speculated that the verdant fields around Abbottabad gave off too much pollen, making the place uninhabitable for an elderly man in frail health.

"It was an invented story," the newspaper concluded. "There is a fear that this whole drama was staged to target Pakistan's nuclear assets."

FABULIST IN CHIEF

Perhaps the most prominent skeptic was retired Lt.-Gen. Hamid Gul, former chief of Pakistani intelligence. A frequent commentator in the local and foreign media, affable and sharp-witted, Gen. Gul started giving interviews in the first minutes after Mr. Obama announced Mr. bin Laden death - and, by his own account, has barely had a chance to pause between appointments in the following days.

His son, Mohammed Abdullah Gul, who assists with his father's schedule, claimed that he conducted 1,200 interviews during the nine days after the raid at Abbottabad. When confronted with the improbability of that number, he explained that Gen. Gul sometimes worked 16-hour shifts to satisfy all the requests.

Nor had demand for Gen. Gul's analysis slackened by Thursday, when his office in Rawalpindi was crowded with reporters from several countries. His son amused the journalists with his home remedies for chicken pox - a mothball wrapped in red cloth, tied around the right arm - while waiting for his father to finish with a television crew.

When he appeared, the 74-year-old former intelligence chief launched into a 20-minute lecture about why Mr. bin Laden could not have lived in Abbottabad. His words still carried an aura of command, although two decades have passed since his days in office, when he orchestrated the proxy war that drove the Russians out of Afghanistan. That experience left him with a fondness for holy warriors, a soft spot that appears undiminished by the fact that so many extremists later turned against Pakistan. He smiles at the recollection of a meal with Mr. bin Laden during his mellower days, in 1993, sitting with the exiled jihadi on the lawn of a house in Sudan.

Gen. Gul said the old man pictured in footage released by the United States did not resemble the man he knew. For one thing, he said, the U.S. videos showed an elderly man holding a remote control in his right hand - but Mr. bin Laden was left-handed.

"Also, he's sitting too close to the TV screen," Gen. Gul said. "It's unnatural."

In the same vein, he said, Mr. bin Laden's true hideout would have contained a dialysis machine and other medical equipment to care for an elderly kidney patient. What's more, he added, the place should have included stronger defences. "The video shows a broken old man," Gen. Gul said, with obvious disgust. "He doesn't look anything like the operational commander of a major terrorist network."

When asked about the three women and 17 children discovered in the compound, Gen. Gul flashed a knowing look. Pakistan will keep them in custody, he said, because their testimony could shatter American illusions. Pakistan could choose to unleash them as witnesses and spoil Mr. Obama's chances of another run at the U.S. presidency, he suggested, but that would be short-term thinking; better to let the Americans get away with their trickery, if it gives them a pretext for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long wanted a U.S. pullout from the neighbourhood, thinking that a new government more friendly to Islamabad would replace the current regime in Kabul.

"We should bide our time," Gen. Gul said. "The Americans want to declare 'Mission Accomplished,' okay, we both want to end the war. So maybe it's better to keep the truth under wraps."

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