Sunday, July 14, 2013

The real cost of a bribe

The real cost of a bribe

If, in 2002, a traffic cop in the fairy-tale town of Swat had booked a car speeding through its bazaar, NATO troops could have left Pakistan by 2003, Iraq might have escaped NATO’s invasion, Barack Obama would probably be an unknown Senator from Chicago and George Bush Junior’s presidential library in Texas would certainly have something to cheer about. But, according to Maryam, her husband Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti “quickly settled the matter”, and the bribed Swat cop never realized he had just let Osama bin Laden escape. Maryam was giving evidence before the Justice Javed Iqbal commission, set up to enquire into the events of 2 May 2011, when US Navy Seals flew three hours into Pak territory, found and killed Osama. Nothing works on our great subcontinent better than instant cash. Al-Kuwati, Osama’s most trust aide, knew that. This is the kind of authentic detail which makes a fabulous story so entirely believable.

Which bit of this enquiry report, spread over 336 pages, garnered from 201 witnesses, is beyond doubt, which is useful, and how many witnesses have spun out little gossamer tales hide truth in a silken web?

Trivia, as indicated, deserves its place in the footnotes of history. Osama, according to a wife, wore a cowboy hat to protect himself from aerial surveillance. Well: where do you buy a 10-gallon Texan hat in Abbottabad? Can’t bring it in the luggage from a Bora Bora battlefield, either. Perhaps she confused it with a baseball cap. We also learn that Osama sometimes shaved his signature beard as part of a disguise. True, this would be perfect deception, but how long would it take to get that beard back to its original majestic length? Presumably no one in that band of brothers and wives had the courage to click a mobile picture of Osama in transition, not even a young consort in a playful mood.

In 2005, after pit stops in five Pakistan cities, the Osama entourage settled into this military garrison town, in a house so visible that no one could see it. The property was bought with a fake ID; perhaps the traffic cop principle was operational again. Four electricity and gas meters were installed in that house; no one asked why. This might have a proper explanation. No one checks electricity meters in Pakistan, so why make an exception in Abbottabad?

The high wall surrounding the house collapsed in the 2005 earthquake, and rubble lay around for months, but no one bothered to enquire, or even see, who lived inside. If you want to raise one eyebrow, reserve your second for the next story. An official survey area listed this home as “be-chiragh” or uninhabited. The Iqbal commission knows the answer: it acknowledges something “more sinister”. In 2005, Pak intelligence “closed the book” on Osama bin Laden; there was “grave complicity (at an) undetermined level”.

That level was obviously former dictator Pervez Musharraf, for this is how decisions are made during army rule. There was no incompetence. There was complicity. Take just one fact: CIA gave ISI certain phone numbers to monitor; it did not. At each turn, Islamabad manufactured and sold a lie to the world. In the beginning came Musharraf’s repeated denials, often accompanied by the hearty laugh reminiscent of retired colonels in the old British army. At the end, when Washington declared Osama dead, a chorus of spokespeople was paraded before media, not least Indian television, to nudge-wink the suggestion that Osama’s capture was a joint US-Pak operation. America had long stopped trusting Pakistan on Osama. Justice Iqbal and his brave colleagues refused to seal a lie with interpretative approval, and deserve our unstinted praise. The episode, they say, indicates not just incompetence or irresponsibility, but something “worse”.

The commission touched one significant nerve when it analyzed the complete failure of Pakistan’s military defences on its western frontier, breached totally by America on that historic night of May 2. The Pakistan air force apparently learnt about Operation Neptune Spear only when it saw media reports. “In the premier intelligence institution,” the report notes, referring to ISI, “religiosity replaced accountability.” The meaning is not complicated. India is the only enemy.

Pakistan’s security regime defines sovereignty in what might be called Indian terms. This is not new; it claims Kashmir but calmly hands over a part under its control to China. America does not respect Pakistani sovereignty over its skies, and uses drones where and when it wants. Protest from Islamabad is token, if not hypocritical. Accommodation with China or America is justified by realpolitik, but any effort at adjustment with India, even along the Cease Fire Line, internationally acknowledged as the acceptable dividing line, is dismissed as “capitulation”.

The people and most politicians of Pakistan have inched away from anti-India obsession, but the military-religious pincer is so strong that even elected governments feel locked in, helpless. Peace between India and Pakistan is blocked not by ground reality, but by ghosts in the mind. In the meantime, worry about the cost of a bribe.

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