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Come clean, for once

May 11, 2011

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THE babel that has been offered to the people over the past many days cannot be accepted as the substitute for a serious debate that should have followed the trauma caused by the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is a danger that Pakistan will miss the opportunity for the kind of stock-taking the situation demands.

As was feared, the state is not speaking with one voice and none of the various statements being issued on its behalf has enhanced its credibility. In his statement before the National Assembly the prime minister rubbished the charges of complicity (with Bin Laden) and inefficiency without supporting arguments.

Indeed, he seemed more keen to exonerate the intelligence agencies than help the people understand the events leading to Bin Laden's liquidation. The opposition has been joined by military spokesmen in blaming the government for failing to offer explanations that could satisfy them. The attacks on the government are based on the apparently wrong assumption that it has been in control of matters related to Al Qaeda and the conflict in Afghanistan.

That government spokesperson are indicting themselves for ignoring the several questions thrown up by the US raid on Bin Laden's hideout and which have generated a heated debate abroad. The first of these questions is whether any civilised code permits the killing of an unarmed man regardless of the allegations against him. The question has arisen after the earlier version, that Osama was killed in crossfire, was challenged.

The second question is whether Bin Laden was really guiding Al Qaeda operations or whether the organisation had spun out of his control. Reports are now being released to prove that Osama had not become an ineffective fugitive. Pakistan must address these questions, otherwise it will be held guilty of condoning political assassination and extra-legal killing as part of legitimate warfare.

Even move critical is the US insistence that it has a right to launch Abbottabad-like operations anywhere in Pakistan. Islamabad has only warned the US of an appropriate military response if anything like the raid on the Osama hideout happens again. But there has been no properly argued rebuttal to this resurrection of the hot pursuit theory.

Two explanations have been offered from the American side. Firstly, it is said that the US has a right to take military action against anyone who in its opinion poses a threat to its interests. Pakistan cannot possibly accept this theory of dubious legitimacy. Suppose the people elect a government that wishes to review its ties with the US and the latter does not like its control over the nuclear arsenal. Will the US be entitled to punish that government?

It has also been alleged that Gen Musharraf had granted the US permission to operate inside Pakistan. The people of Pakistan are entitled to know whether any such agreement was formally concluded. If the answer is in the affirmative, the next questions will be: did Gen Musharraf have lawful authority to grant the US the concession it wants to enjoy in perpetuity? Does the present government have any right to rescind such agreements?

Besides, the event of Bin Laden's liquidation is only one part of the long-drawn-out conflict in Afghanistan and it is time the people were told the whole story. Who made the Afghan policy — the government or one of the privileged state institutions? It is necessary to dispel the widely shared impression that neither Ms Benazir Bhutto nor Mian Nawaz Sharif, both of whom headed the government twice, could be blamed for the Afghan policy. It is doubtful that Messrs Zardari and Gilani were really responsible for matters for which they are offering explanations and unwanted apologies.

It is not possible to deny the labour the Foreign Office is putting in while drafting its statements on the Osama affair. But apart from the late Agha Shahi's role in putting Gen Ziaul Haq's adventures into diplomatic idiom, when has the Foreign Office had any say — in Pakistan's policy towards Al Qaeda, the war on terror and the case of Bin Laden? Shouldn't the people be told as to how their state's external policy is framed and to what extent are the requirements of a consultative process respected?

The people of Pakistan have paid an incredibly high price, many times heavier than the casualties suffered by the armed forces, for three decades of reckless adventures in Afghanistan. Nobody knows how much more they will have to suffer for turning their land into a nursery for militancy. Thus, it is not enough to explain what is being arbitrarily described as a single intelligence lapse. Nor will the demand for a thorough probe be met by an in camera briefing of the members of parliament. The scope of the inquiry that everybody is demanding must be much wider and address the core issues.

It has been said that Pakistan alone is not responsible for failure to track down Bin Laden. Even if this statement is factually correct, though the US leaders do not conceal their scepticism, and the net of responsibility can be stretched to include the intelligence agencies of the whole world, there is little consolation for Pakistan. This country cannot hope to get out of the mess without achieving a clear understanding of the factors that contributed to Pakistan's becoming the safest possible place for Bin Laden and his like.

Osama did not come to Abbottabad by accident; he found a safe haven on Pakistan's territory as a sequel to our gamble with our children's destiny. For that reason a high-level effort must be launched not only to probe the operation against Bin Laden, for that is a small affair, but to investigate the whole Afghanistan policy, which is decidedly the principal issue. It is time the state made a clean breast of it all.