Strawberry fields - Chris Cork - Wednesday, May 04, 2011

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‘Living is easy with eyes closed’ so runs a line from the song ‘Strawberry fields forever’ by John Lennon. A read of the rest of the lyrics suggests that this is a song about unreality, about a different state of consciousness which is perhaps the result of chemical alteration but may just be a song about a daydream. The easy living that goes with eyes closed serves as a telling metaphor for the world we inhabit in Pakistan where nothing is real; and because nothing is real or if it is it cannot be seen, then it is always deniable. In this fairyland almost everybody owns nothing, and those that own something are quick to tell us that they don’t. From the MNAs who are apparently homeless and without a car and who live under a tree near Parliament House and walk to work when they are not begging on Constitution Avenue; to the tragically jobless whose income is a pittance and therefore untaxable but who by a mystery impenetrable to all manage not to own a 3000 acre farm in south Punjab – nobody owns anything.

Moving to the even less tangible aspects of ownership we come into the world of Rumsfeldian known unknowns and the unknowns that we don’t know we don’t know but which are there – we just don’t know about them. These are far easier to deny than immovable assets and have the advantage of being genuinely invisible to ordinary mortals. One such tangible intangible met its end in the bedroom of a house in Abbottabad on 1st May. The death of Osama bin Laden will now become the subject of a feature film (there are reports of a script already in preparation by the same team that produced the Oscar-winning ‘The Hurt Locker’) and is already the centrepiece of a proliferation of conspiracy theories. Many of these have denial as their theme and in doing so they have good company.

The denial of there being any possibility that Osama bin Laden was living here in Pakistan had become stock-in-trade for our ambassadors, the interior ministry, the military and anybody else who held an official position that allowed them to speak on the record and in public. Last October a Nato official had the temerity to suggest that Osama bin Laden was living ‘somewhere in northwestern Pakistan’. Oh no he isn’t said Ambassador Haqqani speaking to CNN on October 10th, 2010... “If anybody who thinks that Pakistan or any other state, for that matter, has any interest in protecting Bin Laden, who has brought nothing but mayhem to the world, is smoking something they shouldn’t be smoking.” Then we have President Zardari speaking to reporters on April 28th, 2009...”The Americans tell me they don’t know, and they are much more equipped than us to trace him. And our own intelligence services obviously think that he does not exist any more, that he is dead.... The question is whether he is alive or dead. There is no trace of him.” So that’s alright then – the Americans don’t know so obviously we could not possibly know either.”

Prime Minister Gilani was in full denial mode during a press conference with the then PM of the UK Gordon Brown on December 3rd, 2009. “I doubt that the information you are giving me is correct because I don’t think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan” he said in response to a reporter’s suggestion that he was. He was, but that was perhaps a known unknown that Mr Gilani could not possibly comment on.

The arch-confuser Rehman Malik finds himself quoted in a Wikileaks cable of September 7th, 2009. He was responding to questions from US Senator Giffords as to what he knew of the whereabouts of ObL. He said that he...’had no clue,’ but added that he did not believe that Osama bin Laden is in the area. ‘Bin Laden sent his family to Iran, so it makes sense that he might have gone there himself. Alternatively, he might be hiding in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or perhaps he is already dead’ he added. The lily of denial was further gilded later when he said....”I categorically deny the presence of Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and even Mullah Omar in any part of Pakistan.” It does not get much more categorical than that. Or, as it happens, more wrong at least in the case of Bin Laden.

All of these denials we tend to dismiss or view sceptically, but the possibility is that all those doing the denying really did not know that Osama bin Laden was playing with the wife and kids in a shabby villa nestled close to our equivalent of Sandhurst, and that he may have been thus ensconced for up to five years. They may not have known because the people who provided the support network for Osama bin Laden during his time as our guest had not told them. It is entirely possible that senior officers of state did not know that Osama bin Laden was here. They may have suspected. They may have heard the rumours that everybody else heard but they may not have been aware of an address or a monthly budget for the upkeep of the man a lot of people were looking for. They also may not have known because they chose not to ask those who might have told them, because if you don’t ask you don’t know and if you don’t know denial is all the easier.

But somebody knew. And that somebody or somebodies were powerful enough to sustain a support network that included a house, food and water, computers even though there was no internet connection to the house and all the other bits and pieces that go to make up the fabric of a life hidden in plain view. Our leaders may with a degree of plausibility deny they knew anything of Osama bin Laden, and can smile cheerily to the world’s media as they do. But if they really did not know about him the question they need to be asking themselves is...what else don’t we know? Eat your heart out, Donald Rumsfeld.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:

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