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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.

If investigations into Mr. bin Laden's death get sidetracked by the astonishing breadth of Pakistani suspicions, it would fit a historical pattern. The world's intelligence agencies have used this region as a chessboard for hundreds of years. The city of Abbottabad itself was founded in 1853 by a hero of the so-called Great Game, a British intelligence officer named Sir James Abbott who wore local clothes and attempted covert schemes to further the interests of the Empire. His missions weren't always flawless - a reconnaissance trip into the mountains cost him two fingers, sliced off by a brigand's sword - but the intelligence collected by agents like Mr. Abbott helped to maintain the uneasy fringes of British and Russian influence. It's not all that different from what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency does today.

Those who inhabited these rough lands were rarely principal actors in whatever schemes played out on their territory, and generations of bitter experience taught them to be wary of foreign powers.

Even the birth of Pakistan remains a subject of active conspiracy talk: To this day, local newspapers continue to report new revelations about the behind-the-scenes politicking of the commissions that partitioned India in 1947. Many people in Pakistan feel that their country was shortchanged in those backroom talks. The legacy of partition has been three wars, a nuclear standoff and a lingering nervousness about Indian aggression that continues to dominate all conversations about national security in Islamabad.

At some point in the following half-century, Pakistani skepticism about world affairs turned into corrosive cynicism. Now, all major events get filtered through the lens of double games and triple bluffs; taking developments at face value is widely seen as unfashionably naive.

Movie shops prominently display pirated copies of crude 9/11 conspiracy films, and many people here prefer to believe that the attacks on the Twin Towers were a scheme hatched by Zionists, or the CIA, to give America a pretext for war in their region. Such conclusions fit comfortably into Pakistan's idea of itself as a nation under siege.

THE COMFORT OF RITUAL

Conspiracy theories can also soften hard truths about domestic affairs, allowing the country to avoid moments of badly needed public reckoning. When the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a member of his own security team this year, apparently because he wanted to repeal a harsh blasphemy law, the incident could have provided a moment for serious debate about religious extremism. Instead, President Asif Ali Zardari gave speeches suggesting that the attack was the result of a grand plot by his opponents.

The same thing happened after a cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in March. A popular newspaper, Jang, ran a front-page headline calling the killing a "heinous conspiracy against Pakistan" and claiming that the incident was somehow a result of American counterterrorism efforts. By interpreting the slaying as an insult against the nation, commentators avoided discussing Pakistan's chronic problem with radical groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for Mr. Bhatti's death.

The conspiracy reflex kicked in hours after Osama bin Laden's death. A security official visited The Globe and Mail's hotel room in Quetta, Pakistan, and apologetically explained that the streets had become too dangerous for foreign journalists because of protests against the U.S. raid.

Some locals apparently believed the reports of Mr. bin Laden's death, the official said, rolling his eyes with the genteel condescension that Pakistani authorities often reserve for the uneducated masses. "We will never really know what happened," he said, sipping green tea.

A few commentators in the English-speaking press appeared so familiar with this routine that they poked fun at the ritual.

"Tell me lies. Sweet little lies," Sana Bucha, an anchor for GEO News, wrote in an opinion column. "I want to be lied to. Again. Because the lies only infuriated me. This 'truth' - half-baked or completely raw - is scary."

As Ms. Bucha foreshadowed, the local media soon filled with a kaleidoscope of rumour. Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of Pakistan's military, was quoted on the front pages of Urdu-language newspapers speculating that Mr. bin Laden died a decade ago, of natural causes, and the Americans had instead killed someone who resembled him.

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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