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Akbar Shahid Ahmed Headshot

Being Pakistani, Hearing That Your Government Hid Bin Laden and Believing It

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OSAMA BIN LADEN TRUCK
A portrait of accused Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden is seen painted on a truck, Monday, Nov. 26, 2001 in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

It starts with one attack. A suicide bomber, perhaps, or a car that explodes. You're shaken. You don't know how long it'll be till the next. It could be days. It could be the time it takes you to get from school to home, past or near the bomb site. Worst, worst of all, it could be just enough hours later that you've let your guard down. Then you hear it, or about it. If you're lucky, you only have to think about the devastation and death. If you're not, you bury your own -- or they lower you into the ground.

Carlotta Gall, in her New York Times magazine piece "What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden," describes two attempts that terrorists in my country made on the life of our first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. During the first, Gall writes, "two huge bombs exploded [in Bhutto's motorcade], tearing police vans, bodyguards and party followers into shreds." She tells us the second attack included an effort to claim its target cleanly -- "one of the two teenagers fired a pistol at her" -- before that young assassin blew himself up, claiming the lives of Bhutto and scores of others.

We're pummeled again and again, us Pakistanis. It's an endless and intricate progression, an Escher stairwell painting worth of national suffering: attack after attack, staggered, sequenced slaughter within each. Our national consciousness has been reduced to a shivering, wary thing, waiting for the next lash on its scarred back.

Pakistan's spy agencies have stated that as of this time last year, 49,000 Pakistanis have died in violence around Islamic terrorism since 9/11. That includes elementary school children and Pakistani troops, residents of the tribal areas that have been battlegrounds in this War on Terror -- ours? America's? -- and residents of our largest cities. These numbers are by no means gospel truth. But if anyone knows what's going on, it's one of the agencies.

We know that even as we weep and fret, the world is watching -- and not always with sympathetic eyes: Gall's book on Pakistan argues that America has been fighting the 'wrong enemy' by invading Afghanistan. Pakistan is the 'right' enemy.

I can't speak for every Pakistani. While others share my brown skin and some or many of my feelings, each of us is not answerable for the rest. Gall's revelations suggest that our most powerful countrymen are working on missions we aren't even aware of. But I want to explain what it feels like to be one Pakistani -- me, a senior at Yale from the kind of background that meant I could attend my kind of university -- and read stories like those in Gall's expose: I'm resigned, and ready to hear worse.

I say her piece consists of stories for a reason. There is no one narrative of what is going wrong in my country. Gall understands this. It's not just about agencies that are equal parts omnipotent and secretive. Pakistan's mess is also a product of governments being propped up by powerful partners abroad, and learning to prop up their own proxies. As these things often go, the proxies then run amok. Every influential, wealthy Pakistani who has not used his or her sway to counter extremism has helped enable the fear we live in. And a big part of the problem is our state policy of dehumanizing citizens in our tribal areas to the point where they're collateral damage in strikes by a foreign power. Our inability to tackle cripplingly violent extremism has much to do with our national decision to, as columnist Umair Javed pointed out last month, cede political, psychological, press and public space to religio-political leaders reaching for a greater claim on our country's soul.

That's a lot to swallow. Now consider it all swirling around in your head. That's what it feels like when I read stories like Gall's. I understand some of the layers of our nation's predicament and I start to buy that even the most egregious policies, like officials being tasked with handling mass murderer Osama Bin Laden instead of handing him over to our ostensible American allies, could be real. Who was making these decisions? Were there no Good Samaritans or long-term strategists? Is there a way the past few years' massacres might have been forecast? Who do I ask? "Answer for yourselves!" I might roar at policy-makers. Of course, I am a 21-year-old who's still what my mother calls "a chit of a boy."

Chits that those of my generation are, we bear the costs of the clashes between power and religion and nations and peoples in Pakistan. Many of us have died. Some have lost siblings or parents. Others are in training right now. They're learning how to kill their peers, and why they should; they're learning to kill people like me. The numbers show that they've succeeded before. We'll bet against them, with a laugh, my parents in Karachi and I. We aren't sure if we might be pummeled next.

I don't have the sourcing at this point to tell you whether Gall got it right. I do question the motives of those who spoke with her, like the multiple unnamed Pakistani officials. And I'm skeptical about who she's chosen to write of positively, especially Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's long been wary of Pakistan and is presented in her piece as prescient about how 'right' an enemy my nation is for the U.S.

But what I can tell you is that I, and millions of other Pakistanis, wouldn't be surprised if she is right on the mark. We are long past faith in our institutions -- often, we're the first to suspect that they've played a hand in ruining our nation. We just don't like it when the West points that out.

And I need you to understand that all this fear and cynicism, the dark feelings that I and about 180 million Pakistanis carry with us, make for a heavy burden. I was with two of my cousins in Washington when I first read Gall's piece. They glanced at me grimly each time I read aloud another line about cruel, calculated machinations at the highest levels of Pakistan's government. The mental leaps that Pakistanis like us are trying to make in our minds, between what we know and what we don't and what the West tells us versus what Islamabad does, scare us. It hurts, thinking this hard. But constant anxiety is now part of being Pakistani. It's made a snug home for itself within each of us, at that deep core the Sufi mystic Rumi called "the root of the root of yourself." This is part of who we are now, this part that's always, secretly and sadly, waiting for more bad news about home.