All the Perfumes of Arabia Will Not…


Not all mysteries are destined to remain unsolved. Pakistan’s story contains many mysteries that we have perhaps given up searching for answers to, but at least one is about to wrap itself around us tighter and tighter in the years to come.

We’ll never really know what brought Gen Zia’s C-130 down that fateful day in August 1988. Even the 30-odd page report, pulled from the larger investigative report whose whereabouts appear to be unknown now, remained inconclusive between mechanical failure and sabotage. Forget about ever finding out who might have been responsible.

Likewise we’ll never really know who ordered the hit on Benazir Bhutto. When a newspaper ran a poorly sourced story claiming that the whole plot was rehearsed at the home of a serving army officer, the reporter found his job cut short. When the UN sent a mission to Pakistan to investigate at the request of the newly elected government, the team members found nobody wanted to meet them.

But not all high-profile killings in Pakistan will remain forever buried. At least one is about to become a very large topic of international discussion once Carlotta Gall’s book comes out, in which she claims that Osama bin Laden found refuge in Abbottabad with the blessings of the highest authorities of the land.

As part of the launch of the book, she will be making numerous appearances and giving many talks in many locations, fielding questions and presenting her thesis before large audiences. One such appearance will be at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, but many others are undoubtedly also scheduled.

Then will come the television appearances. Given the explosive nature of the claims contained in the book, expect to see her in a television blitz that will ensure millions of people hear her argument, even if they never buy her book. Then the launch of the book itself.

Last year Husain Haqqani’s Magnificent Delusions, which argued that every period of alliance between America and Pakistan has ended in tears for both parties, was discussed on a platform as large as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

This year it’ll be Carlotta Gall telling the world that the world’s most wanted terrorist and hatemonger lived as a guest of the authorities in Pakistan all through the ‘war on terror’. Some voices are already questioning the narrative she’s putting out, most significantly that of Peter Bergen, himself the author of more than four books on OBL and the ‘war on terror’.

But voices like that of Bergen are more likely to be superseded once Gall’s book hits the shelves. In a nutshell, Bergen claims that all top officials from the US government with access to the best intelligence on OBL have told him that Pakistani officialdom did not know about his presence in Abbottabad. That may be true, but here’s why his narrative is likely to be superseded: people want to believe Gall.

Never mind that in key places her telling of the tale suffers from important weaknesses. There was little sense in reproducing Ziauddin Butt’s claim that Musharraf arranged refuge for OBL in Abbottabad, even if in the same sentence she qualifies his words. Butt was hardly in a position to know who knew what, and had every reason to make trouble for Musharraf.

Never mind that many other sources are limited to “a former Pakistani official”, who in one case told her that the ISI chief “knew of Osama’s whereabouts”, in another case that the terrorist mastermind “was moving around” and not confined to his residence.

Thus far, no sources are given for claims that he was in contact with other Pakistani militant leaders whose links to the establishment are more widely known. Even details of a meeting between Osama and Qari Saifullah are given, in which snippets from the conversation the two men had are quoted, but no source on where this information came from.

Many questions raised by the magazine preview published by the New York Times will be addressed when the book becomes available. Many will not. But the narrative will sink in, and the denials will ring ever hollow.

With the passage of time, others will step forward to fill in the gaps that are pointed out in Gall’s book. Higher level figures in the US government will break their silence, scintillating tidbits of intelligence will begin to leak out, and the story will acquire more and more detail, growing ever more convincing with each telling.

The implications should not be underestimated. Whether or not the story as told is true — and yes I’m still counting myself amongst the agnostics on this question until I’ve read the book itself — the narrative is now set to tighten like a noose around Pakistan. For decades we’ve been brushing assassinations and other high-profile deaths and murders under the carpet, comfortable in the assurance that there is no cleanser more effective than time.

Zia-ul-Haq, Murtaza Bhutto and Benazir are only the tip of the iceberg. Chaudhry Zulfiqar, Raad Iqbal and so many more are all buried in the same grave. But this is one death that time will not cleanse. Bulldozing that house in Abbottabad evokes the tragic futility of Lady Macbeth scrubbing a stubborn bloodstain that won’t go away.

-the writer is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington DC

-by arrangement with