Love is in the air amid war

What disparate times we live in. Two Fridays ago we were all glued to our television screens as Prince William and Kate said “I will”. That spectacle lived up to all it was hyped to be and we were not spared any pomp and pageantry.

There has been much debate and often scathing criticism over why the world has been so enamoured with the nuptials of two privileged young people, instead of engaging critically with the far more substantive challenges facing their countries.

The truth is that we like a happy ending, wherever we are and wherever we come from. We are in awe of the notion of a fairy tale. That is because most of the time we are so inundated with tales of woe and war that we delight and obsess over the slightest glimmer of good news we get, regardless of how far removed it is from our own lives.

It was best articulated in the sermon delivered by the Bishop of London during the couple’s marriage ceremony at Westminster Abbey. In my view, he stole the show with his cerebral, lyrical yet brief sermon: “Many are full of fear for the future of the prospects of our world, but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one—this is a joyful day! It is good that people in every continent are able to share in these celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.”

These words gladdened the heart and lightened the load—for a few hours—in a world often overcome by pain and despair. The couple’s love and unity symbolised something greater in a time of cynicism and apathy brought about by years of disillusionment.

Just as the saccharine sweetness of the wedding and its news coverage was beginning to stick in one’s craw we were rudely hurtled back to the reality of our lives by the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He who was behind the murder of hundreds of Africans at United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the terrorist attacks in which about 3 000 people died in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York City on September 11 2001.

Former US president George Bush had vowed to “smoke” him out from caves in Afghanistan and bring him to justice. Yet after serving two terms in office, Bush left without having tracked down bin Laden because he was neither in a cave nor in Afghanistan. Instead, almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, he was found in neighbouring Pakistan in a secure compound—and this in a country that professes to be the US’s partner in the war against terror.

Many questions have been asked about bin Laden’s death, but the most pressing is what role Pakistan possibly played in giving one of the world’s most wanted men refuge. He had apparently been living in the compound for six years, right under the noses of Pakistani security and intelligence. Many are shocked. I, strangely, am not.

I spent two weeks in Pakistan in 2004 as part of a group of journalists invited by its government for one of those “come see how awesome our country is” press junkets. These trips are usually doled out by governments in trouble, desperate to show that their countries are not as awful as people think. This time round Pakistan was trying to present itself as a country amenable to news journalists a year after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had been captured and beheaded while working on a story.

We spent a few days in each of the main centres: Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Kashmir. We spoke to government officials, academics at policy think-tanks and journalists during carefully managed engagements. It was important for the government of then president Pervez Musharraf to show its commitment to the war on terror because the US was launching its attacks on Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan.

There was also a need to show that international journalists were safe and could go about their business, but we had a heavily armed military escort that accompanied us as we made a road trip to Kashmir. It also did not help the government’s efforts that more than 50 people were killed in a massive bomb blast in Karachi on the day we arrived.

However, behind closed doors and on the streets of Pakistan it was clear that there was a great deal of resentment from Pakistanis towards the US and its presence in their country. On the whole there did not seem to be genuine acceptance of this war on terror. That is why it does not surprise me in the least that bin Laden was found there. With so much anger against the US it is easy to see why he would have found shelter, succour and support among the people of Pakistan. Tough questions must be asked of the Pakistani government in this regard, but the US also needs to assess its own strategies.

More time talking and listening to the people of Pakistan and gauging their sentiments might have alerted the US to the whereabouts of bin Laden a lot sooner. The superpower’s approach can best be described as naive, which is surprising for a country of such military might.

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