In Abbottabad, the Failures and Resiliency of Pakistan

Is the Pakistani state, in the latest international embarrassment of Osama bin Laden's death, deliberately derelict, merely incompetent, or some unique and tragic combination of both?


A boy collects debris, remains of a firefight, as journalists surround the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad Pakistan. Ahmad Masood/Reuters.

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan isn't exactly a fragile country. It is often spoken of as a product of the 1947 end of British colonial rule in South Asia, and a parallel state to the larger and more organic India. In truth, Pakistan really was born in 1971, after the creation of Bangladesh and the humiliating military defeat it suffered while simultaneously trying to resist both the popular insurgency agitating for a free Bangladesh and a powerful Indian military intervention in what was then West Pakistan. Pakistan is a country with a 40 year history. Of these 40 years, it has been ruled by its military for a full 20, with General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, probably Ronald Regan's favorite brown manOsama Bin Laden, clocking in 11 years, and General Pervez Musharraf, who incidentally happened to be George W. Bush's man-crush in South Asia, clocking in nine. Enduring two decade-long dictatorships, multiple wars, and a traumatic partition, Pakistan has taken a few licks it its time. But perhaps none have been so utterly embarrassing and damning as the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, hiding not in the mysterious and rugged mountains of its Berm uda Triangle-like tribal areas, but in the West Point-like, relatively prosperous and serene city of Abbottabad, a short distance from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul. The Pakistani elite has always been incurably obsessed with Pakistan's image on the Upper West Side and in K Street bars, rather than with the realities of its inner city ghettoes, and its God-forsaken villages. This latest blow, however, must serve to finally wake up the Pakistani elite to take notice. This is no ordinary black eye. It is a battered and bloodied edifice wrapped up in an indefinite coma.

The Pakistani elite's comatose condition can be gauged from the absence of a high-level official reaction to the bin Laden killing. While U.S. President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Indian Home Affairs Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and a parade of the counter-terrorism policy elite from around the world spoke at length about what had happened, all Pakistan could muster was a poorly written, meaningless, and meandering press release from the Foreign Office. The same foreign office that has been without a full cabinet Minister ever since the last one was fired in February for being too close to the Pakistani military establishment. Miraculously, while the Foreign Office was embarrassing Pakistan, President Zardari found time to write an op-ed rife with trite factoids and contested anecdotes, not for his own people, but for the readers of the Washington Post's op-ed pages.

The carrot has made the Pakistani state fat and lazy. The stick has made it fearless, stubborn, and obtuse.

Much of what we need to know about Pakistan's condition today can be gauged not from the substantive events that take place in Pakistan -- the suicide bombings at an alarming frequency, the schools without teachers, the teachers without skills, the assassinations of senior elected officials -- but instead from how Pakistani government structures react to them. We can flag how upsetting it is that bin Laden was in Pakistan, or that little girls are often denied an education in Pakistan, or that suicide bombings take place at shrines in Pakistan -- but the real outrage isn't that these sad and despicable things happen. It is that these sad and despicable things happen over, and over, and over again in Pakistan. There is seemingly an inexhaustible stamina in Pakistan for an unaccountable, unresponsive, and unhinged Pakistani state. Whatever floats your boat of moral outrage in Pakistan (and it is a diverse bag across the country), the one consistent feature is that things will happen without the government making much effort to seem that it is in charge, that it is interested, that it even exists.

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Mosharraf Zaidi advises governments and international organizations on public policy and international aid. He writes a weekly column for Pakistan's the News. His writing is archived at

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