Abbottabad revisited

Updated August 21, 2013


THE dust raised by the Abbottabad Commission’s report took long to settle. Each time it seemed the matter was settled, some new issue would emerge to stir ripples of excitement.

Now it is time to sit back and reflect calmly on what happened. The fact that the report was leaked and Al Jazeera posted it on its website is nothing unusual in this age of whistleblowers and hackers. After WikiLeaks, Abbottabad seemed child’s play in this context.

Since it has been claimed that the leaked draft is not the final and authentic one, I shall not go into the nitty-gritty of who was responsible for the intelligence failure in not detecting Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad and not stopping the American helicopters’ incursion into Pakistani territory in May 2011. The leaked version of the report calls on the country’s leadership — “political, military intelligence and bureaucratic” — to formally apologise to the people of Pakistan for “their dereliction of duty”. This in all probability must have been retained in one form or another in the final version.

This is like asking for the moon. The words ‘I’m sorry’ are the most difficult in our official lexicon. To apologise is something no one at the helm has ever done in Pakistan. What right does a commission — even a judicial one — have to make such demands? The easy response has been to classify embarrassing reports and stack them away on some obscure shelf to gather dust.

But to the public it makes no sense to spend millions on establishing commissions and getting them to have lengthy hearings and then spend hours over writing reports only to hide them. In that respect, the Abbottabad Commission fared better as its findings became public some months after they were finalised. In contrast, the Hamoodur Rahman Commission that investigated our army’s debacle in East Pakistan was more tightfisted. The report surfaced nearly three decades after the event after all the key players were dead. Again it was the foreign media — an Indian news magazine — that spilled the beans forcing Islamabad to come clean on the issue.

Why are our leaders so sensitive to a public mea culpa? I remember at a seminar where I was the rapporteur, a retired general managing the written questions quietly suppressed a question from the audience asking how the army lost the war in East Pakistan when millions were spent on it.

Worse still, I remember how a question at the discussion in a seminar in Islamabad earned me a sound rap on the knuckles from my host, a retired army general. I had ‘naively’ asked the foreign policy adviser to Gen Musharraf who was singing paeans about Pakistan’s love for India how he would explain Kargil in the light of what he had said.

With democracy making so much headway, it is time all those in positions of power — civil and military — learnt to accept transparency and accountability. Whatever the reasons of their perceived failures, it is time an open discussion was allowed on strategic issues — especially those which involve no breach of security.

If there is public anger and resentment against the performance of the defence establishment it is not hard to see why it exists. First there is the size of the defence budget. This has been a controversial subject for long. In budget 2013-14 defence spending has been jacked up by 10pc. Today the government spends 2.4pc of GDP on defence and only 0.9pc on education. According to one calculation the defence spending is 125pc of the education and health budgets.

One can only marvel at this lopsided division of resources between defence and the social sector that is basically concerned with human needs of the population. In the absence of a balanced and well-rounded social and economic growth, a country cannot defend itself with sophisticated and costly weapons. Even nuclear warheads do not help. We are learning quite belatedly how impossible it is to defend a country inhabited by people who are divided, in poor health, have little or no education, and no jobs to give them a stake in the country. They become the breeding ground for militancy and extremism.

These are signs of a country heading for implosion. The fact is that the nature of warfare has changed totally. Gone are the days when a country that could defend its borders felt safe. Now the enemy lives within its borders and guns cannot hold it together. However powerful might be a country’s arsenal, it may actually be a handicap as it siphons off funds that could have gone into building up a strong and united citizenry which is the best defence a country can have. No army anywhere in the world can defend a people against internal enemies. That calls for a political strategy that seeks to create social capital.

We have numerous examples of countries imploding from within. The most quoted example is that of the USSR which collapsed in 1991 after it had lost the Afghan war. It was not the defeat in Afghanistan that led to the Soviet Union’s break-up. It was its huge defence budget that caused a bust up of its economy when the political structure could no longer hold.