Obama’s intriguing silence on Pakistan, writes Karan Thapar

One of the most riveting chapters in Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land, is the last one. It’s the story of the Navy SEAL’s operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in 2011. This chapter, number 27, starts on the 673rd page of this 902-page tome, but if you’re reading from the start it won’t be as daunting to get there as that sounds. It’s a very readable book written in a flowing and gripping style.

This is how Obama recounts the moment he learnt bin Laden was dead: “With a suddenness I didn’t expect, we heard McRaven’s and Leon’s voices, almost simultaneously, utter the words we’d been waiting to hear … ‘Geronimo ID’d … Geronimo EKIA’. Enemy killed in action … Inside the conference room, there were audible gasps … ‘We got him.’ I said softly.”

Several hours later, Obama told his wife Michelle. This time he captures both the charm of the moment and its ordinariness. “I had just finished shaving and putting on a suit and tie when she walked through the door. ‘So?’ she said. I gave a thumbs-up and she smiled, pulling me into a hug. ‘That’s amazing babe,’ she said. ‘Really. How do you feel?’ ‘Right now, just relieved’, I said. ‘But check back with me in a couple of hours.’”

However, the one question Obama doesn’t answer — or even address — is about Pakistan’s role. Was Pakistan hiding bin Laden and, therefore, complicit? Or unaware of his presence and, therefore, incompetent? I’m surprised by his silence. He knows it’s an obvious question and one many expect him to answer. As the United States president at the time, he must know.

In 2017, when Obama was the star attraction at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, I asked him. He said his administration had no evidence Pakistan was aware of bin Laden’s presence. However, he tantalisingly added, “I’ll leave it to you to characterise beyond what I just said.”

This was an opportunity I couldn’t let slip. He was tempting me to draw my own conclusion and put it to him. “So it was incompetence?” The former president wouldn’t say. He was determined not to be drawn further. He simply smiled.

By coincidence, I had put the same question to former Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, at a Hindustan Times Leadership Summit a couple of years earlier. When I asked if Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent, he said — with surprising candour but also not inconsiderable humour — the truth was the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had fallen asleep!

“That’s neglect, isn’t it?” But Musharraf was determined not to agree. “No, let’s say the ISI fell asleep” and he smiled knowingly. “The ISI has a right to go to sleep occasionally.”

I repeated this story to Obama hoping it might prompt him. But he only laughed. I couldn’t get him to say anything more.

However, in his book, Obama reveals the reaction of both the Pakistani army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, and president Asif Zardari. Admiral Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, rang Kayani. Obama says the conversation was polite but Kayani “requested that we come clean on the raid and its target as quickly as possible in order to help his people manage the reaction of the Pakistani public.”

In contrast, Zardari’s response was almost admirable. “I expected my most difficult call to be with Pakistan’s beleaguered president, Asif Ali Zardari, who would surely face a backlash at home over our violation of Pakistani sovereignty. When I reached him, however, he expressed congratulations and support. ‘Whatever the fall out’, he said, ‘it’s very good news.’”

Now political memoirs are not easy to write because you never know how much of the truth to tell.

Chapter 27 suggests Obama held back on a lot. No doubt, some secrets must be carried to the grave but why won’t he reveal whether Pakistan was complicit or incompetent?

Despite telling his story delightfully, his silence on this issue is audible. His refusal to address it won’t make the question go away.

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