Amanda Hodge, in The Australian, 14 May 2011, under a different title
FROM his father’s front porch, where he insists on sitting so as not to share a room with a woman, the self-described Taliban disciple explains patiently how Osama bin Laden was funded by the US and India. “Osama bin Laden is a CIA person,” says the 41-year-old son of a retired Pakistan army major. “He had direct connection with the Indians. Evil people have connections all over the world.”
From where I sit, half behind the lounge room curtain as directed, I can just make out Shujar ur-Rehman’s bearded face and white-turbaned head through a screened window. Released from prison four months back and living less than 1km from bin Laden’s compound, Shujar is the extreme face of the conspiracy theories flourishing inPakistan. His brother, a personable bin Laden look alike with fluent English and a masters degree in electrical engineering, laughs off Shujar’s theories as those of a man unhinged, before referencing Chuck Norris and Charlie Sheen as authorities on the 9/11 attacks being an Israeli plot.
Conspiracy theories love a vacuum and the many unanswered questions over bin Laden’s death have created fertile ground for improbable explanations to germinate. Did bin Laden die at the hands of US Navy SEALs in the compound less than 2km from the country’s most prestigious military academy, or has he been dead for years?
Was he taken alive for US interrogation? Did the ISI intelligence agency not know of his presence in one ofPakistan’s most important garrison towns, or were they just waiting for the best time to hand him over?
A humiliated population is grasping at improbable straws and scrabbling for answers.
At a Gloria Jeans coffee outlet inIslamabad, a respected journalist points to apparent evidence of Saudi Arabian involvement. Under pressure from the Arab Spring revolution, and fearing an al-Qa’ida plot to capitalise on the unrest, the Saudis may have mediated the handover of bin Laden, he muses.
Even sober intellectuals are surrendering to their imaginations. “I don’t believe in conspiracy theories,” begins Talat Masood, a retired three-star general and one of the country’s most sensible and articulate analysts, before suggesting bin Laden is probably being kept alive by the US for questioning and definitive DNA testing.
“He would be a huge source of information, irrespective of all the files and hard drives they recovered from the compound. He’s the hardest drive there is, so it would be amazing if they had killed him yet.”
Pakistan’s all-powerful military – which has staged three successful coups since 1947 – has been weakened by its failure to detect bin Laden in its own backyard. Army chief Ashfaq Kayani has spent the week lashing out at his government for failing to answer questions only the military can answer, and at theUSfor doing what the military should have done.
Even firebrand television anchors, usually the first to champion the armed forces over “corrupt” civilian politicians, have turned against the military. One slammed the country’s “two-faced” approach to extremism, a reference to what theUSsuspects is public support for the war on terror and simultaneous covert backing of militant proxies inAfghanistanandKashmir.
“We have become the world’s biggest haven of terrorism,” declared chat show host Kamran Khan. “We need to change.”
On a flight fromIslamabadtoLahorethis week, a service used by businessmen and rich Pakistani women shuttling from homes inLondonandNew York, a ferocious debate broke out. Could Imran Khan, former playboy cricketer turned opposition leader, head a government capable of brokering a truce with theUS,IndiaandAfghanistan?
A heavily made-up woman sporting a giant Chanel bag and a colossal diamond interjects to suggest that “whatPakistanneeds is a Mexican-style revolution”.
“We need to get Pakistan’s best brains together and overthrow this establishment,” she says to stunned silence. “I mean, we can’t go on like this, can we?”