A catalogue of Pakistan's failings

When it comes to Bin Laden's embarrassing presence in Pakistan, neither the conspiracy nor the cock-up explanation reflects well on the authorities

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After the United States tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad two years ago, the euphoria in the White House was matched probably only by the humiliation in Islamabad.

Pakistan had repeatedly denied that it was harbouring Bin Laden and, indeed, that he was in its territory at all. Not only did the US operation explode those protestations, it also showed that a foreign power could penetrate the country’s air space and conduct a lethal raid with impunity. Pakistan’s air force was eventually scrambled, but too late to prevent what happened.

Now, to complete Pakistan’s embarrassment, a version of the official government report on how Bin Laden was able to live in Pakistan undetected for so long has found its way to the Qatar-based international TV station, Al Jazeera. This may not be the final text in its entirety, but the findings seem unambiguous. 

A central question was whether Bin Laden was sheltered by the Pakistan authorities – or parts of the intelligence services deemed sympathetic to al-Qa’ida – or whether Pakistan’s law enforcement was simply incompetent. Neither the conspiracy nor the cock-up explanation would have reflected well on Pakistan, but evidence of a conspiracy would have caused more difficulties for the country’s elite, and more problems for the recently re-elected government, than the cock-up version – which is the one the inquiry accepted.

So while Islamabad has expressed fury about the leak of the report, which it had done its best to suppress, it emerges in a slightly better light than it would have done, had a conspiracy been uncovered. In the longer term, though, the cock-up conclusion presents at least as much of a challenge, as it shows how poorly Pakistan functions at almost every level. There may have been no enemy within – in this instance, at least – but there is evidence of pervasive maladministration. This is something the government has to address, if it wants Pakistan to become anything like a functioning modern state.

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