Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani strongly defended his military and intelligence agencies Monday, calling allegations of complicity in sheltering Osama bin Laden “absurd” and vowing to launch an investigation into how the Al Qaeda leader was able to live in the garrison city of Abbottabad.
In his first address to parliament since Mr. bin Laden’s death, the prime minister attempted to deflect some of the criticism that has been directed at Pakistan, saying that his country alone cannot be held accountable for the creation of Al Qaeda and promising to “retaliate with full force” if the US acts unilaterally on Pakistani soil in the future.
Analysts see the speech as an attempt to counter popular anger and outflank the political opposition on the perceived violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, while pledging unity with the Pakistan Army upon whose goodwill the weak civilian government depends.
Mr. Gilani’s tough talk is “playing to the public gallery” in the face of vociferous calls from the opposition for high-level resignations because Pakistani territory was violated by the unilateral US action, according to Raza Rumi, an editor at The Friday Times, a Pakistani weekly. “I think it was in large measure meant to neutralize the playing of the sovereignty card,” he says.
A poll conducted by YouGov last week found that three quarters of Pakistanis disapproved of the US action while only 11 percent approved. Fifty-two percent said that after the raid they believed Pakistan was at greater risk from Al Qaeda attacks.
The prime minister’s speech was received with jeers from the opposition benches. Chaudhry Nisar, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League N stated that the speech did not address the peoples’ concerns, adding that Gilani spoke in English, rather than Urdu “to appease his [US] masters.”
Analysts largely expected some criticism of the military this week – a week in which the country’s most powerful institution had taken a battering.
Parliamentarian Ayaz Amir was among those who praised the speech: “Pakistan has been damaged enough, it would really be compounding matters if the government and Army were to be showing any kind of cleavage,” he says, adding that redressing the imbalance of civil-military relations that was pushed into the spotlight last week “cannot happen overnight,” and would require the support of all major political parties.
Gilani said the failure to find bin Laden earlier was the collective failure of many countries. “The Al Qaeda chief, along with other Al Qaeda operators, had managed to elude global intelligence agencies for a long time. He was constantly being tracked, not only by the ISI but also by other intelligence agencies.”
Despite the criticism against the US, Gilani said the killing of bin Laden was “justice done,” adding that the strategic relationship between Washington and Islamabad remained a “mutual interest.” He said military officials would brief a joint session of parliament May 13.
The address disappointed those awaiting answers as to how the world’s most wanted terrorist was able to live in relative comfort in a suburb of the capital.