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Pakistanis in denial 10 years after 9/11

Millions in Pakistan doubt that Osama Bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks.—File photo

ABBOTTABAD: The young Pakistani officer sighs when he thinks about what happened to Osama bin Laden. “Was he really here?” he says. “All that, it's like 9/11, we don't even know if it really happened.”

Sitting at the end of the track leading to the compound where US Navy SEALs killed the Al-Qaeda leader on May 2, Abdullah prefers to enjoy the fresh air blowing down from the Himalayas than relive his country's darkest hour.

“This is a holiday compared to Mathani or Charsaddah,” he added, referring to parts of the northwest where Taliban bomb attacks and shootings have killed so many of his colleagues.

Abdullah is just one of millions in Pakistan who doubt that bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks.

That spotlights the country's ambiguous relationship with extremism and selective approach to militants in what Washington calls the headquarters of Al-Qaeda.

The ambiguity is all the starker given that the cataclysmic events of September 11 dragged the nuclear power into a decade of fighting and violence that the government in Islamabad claims has killed 35,000 people.

The bulk of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda escaped the US invasion of Afghanistan by fleeing into Pakistan.

The army —furious with the West for doubting its commitment to the terror fight — says more than 3,000 soldiers have died battling them since.

Opposed to the US alliance, jihadist groups —once sponsored by the state to fight in Afghanistan and against India —have splintered into a local Taliban blamed for more than four years of unrelenting bomb attacks.

In such a country —so fearful of India, distrustful of America and protective of its traditional influence over Afghanistan as a counterweight to Indian power —conspiracy theories fester unchecked.

Wahab Khan Maseeb, 20, leaves his lectures at the medical faculty in Abbottabad. A young Pakistani-American in jeans and a T-shirt, he was in school in Brooklyn on that fateful day 10 years ago. He saw the ash cover everything.

But was it an militant attack? Wahab hesitates. Like others, he saw the “Loose Change” series of documentary films, which accused elements of the US government of carrying out the 9/11 attacks.

“It was pretty convincing,” he says.  In a country awash with anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, Pakistani newspapers peddled totally unsubstantiated claims that 4,000 Jews didn't turn up to work in New York that day, so the attacks were somehow a Zionist plot.

Such theories are preached from mosques and propagated by madrassas responsible for the education of millions of largely penniless children.

Diplomatically, the United States has never been more frustrated with Pakistan for refusing to, or being incapable of, rounding up Al-Qaeda allies in the northwestern tribal belt.

US troops say the Haqqani network, whose leadership is based in North Waziristan, poses the biggest threat to security in Afghanistan, yet Pakistani intelligence agents are known to have close ties to the group.

“And yet there is no choice but to maintain a relationship with Pakistan. Why? Because we're fighting a war there,” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently.

With the US relationship worse than ever in the wake of the bin Laden raid, the perception that the United States has dragged Pakistan deeper into disaster is prevalent among all classes of society.

“Even educated people now believe in these theories, largely because of a large distrust with the US,” says journalist Zahid Hussain, author of “Frontline Pakistan” and “The Scorpion's Tail”.

The danger is that conspiracy theories create a climate in which it is easier for extremist networks to recruit.

“The wave of intolerance sweeping the country is also due substantially to the conspiracy theories put about by the ruling establishment and their allies in the media,” wrote Ahmed Rashid this summer in the New Republic magazine.

One popular narrative —that Washington is in cahoots with India and Israel to destroy Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the Muslim world —papers over inadequacies of corruption and inefficiency closer to home.

After the May 2 bin Laden raid, for example, Pakistan denounced the violation of sovereignty rather than elaborate on how and why the Al-Qaeda leader managed to live for years near the country's top military academy.

Four months on, there are still no answers, feeding suspicions of collusion between elements in the security forces and Al-Qaeda.

“Certainly there were perhaps retired or mid-level elements in the intelligence agencies who perhaps knew bin Laden was in the country or how to get messages to him,” Rashid told AFP.

Instead of blaming India, Israel and the United States, Pakistanis should realise “it is the selective state sponsorship of extremism that is destroying the country”, he wrote in New Republic.


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