ISLAMABAD, May 9: Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani seemed to be mincing a lot of words in the National Assembly on Monday as he rejected doubts about the role of security agencies regarding Osama bin Laden’s killing by US commandos at the Al Qaeda leader’s Abbottabad hideout and declared that all state institutions “are on the same page”.
But the prime minister, in a prepared speech in which he called Osama’s elimination in an early May 2 operation as “justice done” and called for demolishing Osama’s “myth and legacy”, promised a joint session of both houses of parliament on Friday for a more satisfying in camera briefing by defence authorities, before the opposition PML-N voiced its dismay with his explanations and erupted into uproar thrice mainly over its rivalry with a new government ally.
Mr Gilani was opening a special debate on the incident amid allegations abroad about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of either complicity or inefficiency in tracking the Al Qaeda chief in Abbottabad where he is presumed to have lived for five years and an outcry within the country about a perceived violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by US navy commandos’ covert action.
The prime minister accused what he called “media spin masters” of portraying “a false divide between state institutions of Pakistan” and said: “I would like to most emphatically reject the notion of divide.”
In unprepared remarks later, he said:
“The government and all other (state) institutions are on the same page.”
Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ahmed Khan, in a long speech later, said the prime minister had not answered the questions asked in the streets of Pakistan and wanted him to declare categorically that any such action in the future would be repelled by force and accept responsibility for the perceived intelligence failure.
He also said his PML-N party would not take part in the military briefing to the joint sitting of parliament if half of it were not open to the media.
After three periods of shouting mainly directed at the rival PML-Q for its deal to join the coalition government last week, he led a walkout by all but three PML-N lawmakers, amid a blistering counter-attack by Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who called the protesters Osama’s “supporters” and recalled PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s alleged deal with former president Pervez Musharraf to get a pardon of jail sentence in exchange for a Saudi exile.
In his prepared speech, the prime minister said statements issued by the foreign ministry and the military on Osma’s death were authorised by the government and added: “Let me also affirm the government’s full confidence in the high command of Pakistan armed forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence. Indeed the ISI is a national asset and has the full support of the government. We are proud of its considerable accomplishments in the anti-terror campaign.”
Mr Gilani said no other country in the world and no other security agency had done so much to interdict Al Qaeda as the ISI and “our armed forces” as he recalled their anti-terror operations in tribal areas, capture of hundreds of Al Qaeda members and some senior operatives and later military operations elsewhere.
“It is disingenuous for anyone to blame Pakistan or state institutions of Pakistan, including the ISI and the armed forces, for being in cahoots with Al Qaeda,” he said, adding: “It was Al Qaeda and its affiliates that carried out hundreds of suicide bombings in nearly every town and city of Pakistan and also targeted political leaders, state institutions, the ISI and the General Headquarters.”
However, he acknowledged that “the obvious question that has vexed everyone is how could Osama bin Laden hide in plain sight in the scenic surroundings of Abbottabad”, but said: “Let’s not rush to judgment.”
Calling allegations of complicity or incompetence “absurd”, he said: “We emphatically reject such accusations. Speculative narratives in the public domain are meant to create despondency. We will not allow our detractors to succeed in offloading their own shortcomings and errors of omission and commission in a blame game that stigmatises Pakistan.”
Mr Gilani said the issue of the Al Qaeda chief getting a hideout in Abbottabad “needs a rational answer” without resort to what he called self-defeating recrimination and misplaced rhetoric.
“Yes, there has been an intelligence failure,” he said, reiterating remarks he made during a visit to France last week and added: “It is not only ours but of all the intelligence agencies of the world.”
Stating that the Al Qaeda chief was the “most wanted terrorist and enemy number one of the civilised world”, he said: “Elimination of Osama bin Laden, who launched waves after waves of terrorist attacks against innocent Pakistanis, is indeed justice done.
“However, we are not so naïve to declare victory, mission accomplished, and turn around. The myth and legacy of Osama bin Laden remains to be demolished. The anger and frustration of ordinary people over injustice, oppression and tyranny that he sought to harness to fuel the fire of terrorism in the world, needs to be addressed. Otherwise, this rage will find new ways of expression.”
The prime minister said the Abbottabad episode had raised questions about Pakistan’s defence capability and security of its strategic assets, though he asserted it illustrated “our military responded to the US forces’ covert incursion. The Air Force was ordered to scramble. Ground units arrived at the scene quickly. Our response demonstrates that our armed forces reacted, as was expected of them.”
But he said there was no denying the US technological ability to evade Pakistani radars. “We regret that this unilateral action was undertaken without our concurrence. Unilateralism runs the inherent risk of serious consequences. Suppose the operation had gone wrong. A US helicopter was abandoned and destroyed on the site. This is a small though important reminder of the risks in such operations.”
But the prime minister said no one should draw “any wrong conclusions” from this incident. “Any attack against Pakistan’s strategic assets, whether overt or covert, will find a matching response. Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force. No one should underestimate the resolve and capability of our nation and armed forces to defend our sacred homeland.”
Mr Gilani particularly referred to Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China as “a source of inspiration and strength” for Pakistani people and said he would like to dispel apprehensions being voiced about ties with the United States with which, he said, “we have a strategic partnership which we believe serves our mutual interests” and was based on mutual respect and mutual trust.
He said: “Pakistan and the US have strategic convergence. The dissonance that finds hype in the media is about operational and tactical matters. It is not unusual to have a different point of view on the methodology to achieve shared objectives.
“We have, however, agreed that whenever we find ourselves on “conflictual” paths and disagree, we should make efforts to reach common understanding by deeper and more intense exchange of views.”
15 policy points
The prime minister underscored 15 points of his government’s policies:
1) Pakistan is confident of its bright future; 2) Our real strength is our people, who are determined to overcome all challenges; 3) We have an ongoing multi-track process of engagement with all major powers, including the United States; 4) Our engagement with states within our region is being intensified in the interest of shared stability and prosperity; 5) Counter-Terrorism is a national priority; 6) Al Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan. Osama Bin Laden’s elimination from the scene attests to the success of the anti-terror campaign; 7) Intelligence cooperation is critical for the attainment of the goals of anti-terrorism; 8) Blame games serve no purpose; 9) An investigation into the matter has been ordered which shall be conducted by Adjutant General of the Pakistan Army Lt-Gen Javed Iqbal; 10) Our security policies are constantly reviewed to enhance defence capabilities; 11) There are no differences among the state institutions; 12) Cooperation in counter-terrorism warrants a partnership approach which fully accommodates Pakistan’s interests and respect for the clearly stipulated red lines; 13) Pakistan’s relations with all states, especially immediate neighbours and major powers, are in good shape; 14) Safeguarding and promotion of our national interest is the sole objective of the government’s policies; and 15) Parliament is the right forum to discuss all important national issues. The will of the people shall prevail.