The veil has been lifted. The truth revealed is so awful that one is tempted to look away, but we must not. For the first time since the war on terror began, we now have the clearest view of our enemy’s other face. And it is not that of a bearded jihadi but of a serving officer in the Pakistani army.
Let us be clear about what happened last week: Osama bin Laden was not just found living in Abbottabad, there out of some inverse logic of his own. He was found in this garrison town because he was a guest of the army. And now the charges against this army and its agencies are manifold.
They range from duplicity in Afghanistan, both aiding the Americans and their adversaries, to a rich trade in nuclear technology with the world’s worst countries, to — as senior members of the Indian establishment have claimed — helping to plan and execute the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Pakistan’s neighbours — India and Afghanistan — are hoarse in the throat from repeating that it is the Pakistani army that is the source of jihad in south Asia.
Yet for all these charges against it, this army has thrived in the ever-smaller gap between perception and reality. This is why bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad is significant: it represents the moment when perception and reality become one. And what a frightening reality it is: a vast and nuclear-armed military exposed for not just being the enemy of peace in south Asia but probably the ultimate sponsor and protector of terrorism against the West.
The ramifications are grim. The response in India and Afghanistan has been open outrage, and a feeling of vindication leagued with some considerable anxiety at how Pakistan will respond to the looming US withdrawal of troops. In America too, which because of its close military ties to Pakistan needs to move cautiously, a diplomatic frost of a sort is setting in. The civilian government (which I sense was in the dark about bin Laden) is squirming.
The danger is of an army shamed and distrusted abroad while increasingly more destructive at home. Already it has done more harm to its people than to any outside force. The country was founded as an impractical utopia for India’s Muslims in 1947. When this proved to be essentially nihilistic, making it a place that defined itself by not being India, the expectations on which Pakistan was founded fell away, and the army moved in.
It led the country into a series of ruinous wars with India, undermined civilian governments and entrenched itself in economic life — becoming bread-maker and property dealer, and consuming a fourth of the national budget each year.
Even as the country steadily collapsed, Pakistan’s army flourished. It became like a kind of Praetorian Guard for whose parasitical growth the Islamic republic’s aspirations were ransomed. Then in the 1980s, to keep alive an enmity with India, a hateful Islamic ideology was spread among the people of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s army has left the country today more adrift than any other in the Muslim world. Terrorism is just one part of the problem; there is on the ground an unimaginable level of fear and anarchy. The place is full of gangs, kidnappings, parricides, rapes and murders. It is as if the whole fabric of society has come apart.
There has also been, since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, a campaign to silence dissent in Pakistan. Earlier this year, my father, the governor of Punjab, was killed by his own guard.
The act was put down to the actions of a single man. But later that week there were vast demonstrations of support for my father’s killer — rallies of 40,000 and more — and leading them was Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, a group created and nurtured by the Pakistani army, which is loath to put it out of business because of its special hatred of India. Its leader, Hafiz Saeed, was also the man conducting prayers for bin Laden this week.
There is such a climate of fear and violence in Pakistan at the moment that only a fraction of what happens gets reported. Moments before I sat down to write this article, a Pakistani friend called. Over the course of our conversation, she asked me if I had considered why a mutual acquaintance, someone normally brave and outspoken, had been silent of late.
I said I did not know; perhaps they were frightened. In fact, a relative had been kidnapped, and the kidnappers warned that without their future silence, the boy was as good as dead.
This then is the background of bin Laden’s death: a shattered country, traumatised and steeped in blood, with a rogue army falling piecemeal into the hands of jihad. After my father’s assassination, I had begun to feel that the birth of this new terrorist state would not be defined by anything so distinct as a takeover or a revolution but by an infiltration so deep that it would soon be impossible to know where Pakistan began and where terrorism ended.
This latest news of the army’s guest in Abbottabad suggests that the new state is already at hand.
(Aatish Taseer’s new novel, Noon, is out this summer. An edited version of this article appeared in the Financial Times on May 6. The views expressed by the author are personal.)