ABBOTTABAD: Pakistanis living next to Osama bin Laden's safe house say they are furious with the failure of their army to prevent the US commando raid that killed him on their doorstep.
The army, the most powerful institution in the country, admits failing to detect the terror kingpin lived near its top training centre and has been deeply embarrased by a US raid in the dead of night on the quiet neighbourhood.
On a sunny Saturday, April 23, the most powerful man in Pakistan, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, donned ceremonial attire to watch cadets in their passing out parade at the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy at Abbottabad.
Congratulating the new officers at the spot where he himself graduated in 1971, the general declared the army was “fully aware of internal and external threats to the country and will come up to the expectations of the nation”.
The garrison city where he spoke was a quiet place, spared attacks by the al Qaeda-allied Taliban that have bloodied the country for four years.
But 10 days later Abbottabad had a rude awakening when 79 elite American commandos flew low overhead by helicopter to storm a house in the relatively well-off Bilal Town suburb and kill the world's most wanted man.
Kakul academy is around a mile from the spot as the bird flies. Founded in 1947, the year of Pakistan's independence, it houses nearly 3,000 future officers in spacious bungalows set among pine trees and gardens.
As the army's website puts it, Abbottabad is “the military town, full of soldiers exercising, parading, playing polo and practicing the bagpipes.” Many are incredulous to discover Bin Laden was living next to Pakistan's answer to Sandhurst or West Point, surrounded by at least 5,000 soldiers.
Yet it took the army more than an hour to arrive on the scene after being alerted to the covert US raid, and by the time they arrived, bin Laden was dead, his body was on a helicopter and the US Navy SEALs were gone.
Pakistan says the US helicopters arrived undetected and that it only found out what was going on when one of the choppers crashed with a bang – it was subsequently abandoned.
All of this leaves resident Sardar Amir deeply unimpressed and losing confidence in the armed forces.
“I am disgusted, angry with the army, the ISI (spy agency), the government,” he said.
“If Americans can attack here, they can do it anywhere.” “This is a shameful incident for us. Our army should have shot down the US choppers,” concurred 23-year-old medical student Tahirullah.
The fact that the target was the man blamed for inspiring militants who have killed more than 4,000 people in bomb attacks across Pakistan over the last four years, does not change people's minds.
A classmate of Tahirullah, Yakat Hussein, won't cry for bin Laden.
“But the Pakistani army should have arrested him earlier,” he said.
Washington decided things would not work that way. CIA director Leon Panetta said the United States chose not to inform Pakistan in advance of the raid for fear it “could have alerted” bin Laden -- provoking anger from Islamabad.
The breach of national territory has tarnished the reputation of the army, previously revered as the only stable institution in a country obsessed with security and that of its military and nuclear facilities.
The country's political leaders are widely derided as lackeys of America, desperate not to offend the superpower ally for fear of disrupting the flow of billions of dollars in military and civilian aid.
But doubts are growing about the army as guarantor of security, even among some soldiers stationed at Kakul.
“We were simply unaware about his presence in the area and about the operation by the American forces,” said one on condition of anonymity, adding quietly: “But I think that the top military leadership might have been aware”.
“If he (bin Laden) was really in this area, our high officials should have had some clue,” said another.
On Friday, Bilal Town was heaving with security as the army stepped up checkpoints and cordons to prevent media getting close to the bin Laden villa.
“Enough is enough, you people have done a lot of work. The presence of media was a hurdle in the investigation. There were also some security threats,” district police chief Mohammad Kareem Khan told AFP by phone.
Graffiti now adorns several walls of the area: “Osama bin Laden Town” it reads, ensuring the new infamy of the once sleepy garrison suburb will live on. – AFP