Pakistan Journalist Vanishes: Is the ISI Involved?

Fears are growing for the safety of a well-known Pakistani journalist who has been missing for 39 hours now and, according to an international advocacy group, is believed to be in the custody of Pakistan's controversial Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Human Rights Watch declared that Syed Saleem Shahzad, a reporter working for the Hong Kong–based Asia Times Online and Adnkronos International, the Italian news agency, could be subject to mistreatment and even torture while in custody.

UPDATE: Pakistan's main news channels are reporting that Shahzad's dead body has been found. One news channel broadcast what appeared to be a black and white image of Shahzad's face. There were visible signs of torture..

While the ISI was said to have bristled at previous reports by Shahzad, his disappearance happened two days after he wrote a story for Asia Times Online that said that al-Qaeda had attacked a naval base in the port city of Karachi on May 22 after talks had broken down between the Pakistan navy and the global terrorist organization. In his report, Shahzad claimed that al-Qaeda had carried out the attack in retaliation for the arrest of naval officials suspected of links with the terrorist group. (See pictures of the Taliban's war in Pakistan.)

The 17-hour attack on the Karachi naval base by at least four people led to the destruction of two Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion aircraft that had been enhanced with counterterrorism capabilities. An investigation is currently under way. At the time of the attack, former military officers and analysts speculated that it could not have been mounted without some help from the inside.

On Monday, Pakistani intelligence officials told journalists that they had picked up Kamran Ahmed Malik, a former navy commando, in Lahore on Friday. Malik and his brother have been detained in connection with the investigation. While Malik has not been formally charged, it is widely reported that he is being held for questioning about his links to both the terrorists and former colleagues inside the navy.

Shahzad, the missing journalist, is believed to have been abducted by intelligence agents from the well-heeled F-6/2 area of Islamabad around 5:45 p.m. At the time, he was on his way to the studios of Pakistan's Dunya News channel to discuss the contents of his latest report about the naval-base attack. He had driven there from his house in central Islamabad's leafy F-8/4 neighborhood, some 4 km away. At a quarter to 6, Shahzad had responded to a call from a producer at Dunya News and said he was on his way, says Nasim Zehra, director of current affairs at the channel. No one has heard from him since. TIME's request for comment from the military was not answered. (See why Osama bin Laden's death should finish al-Qaeda.)

The following morning, Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, received a call from Shahzad's wife. "He had told her that I was one of the people that should be called in case anything happens to him," says Hasan. "He had feared for sometime that something like this would happen to him." Later, Human Rights Watch says it was able to establish that Shahzad was being held by the ISI. "We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI," says Hasan. Those interlocutors, he adds, had received direct confirmation from the agency that it was detaining Shahzad. In any case, Hasan says, "in a high-security zone like Islamabad, it is only the ISI that can effect the disappearance of man and his car without a trace."

Human Rights Watch was also told that Shahzad was supposed to return home on Monday night. "The relevant people were informed that his telephone would be switched on first, enabling him to communicate with his family," says Hasan. "They were told that he would return home soon after." But by 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Shahzad had still not been heard from. At that point, Hasan recalled that Shahzad had sent him an e-mail on Oct. 18, 2010, that was to be released in the event of his disappearance. At the time, says Hasan, he was "fairly sure that sooner or later something was going to happen." Human Rights Watch says it has made repeated attempts to contact Pakistan's government and establish Shahzad's whereabouts, but has received no response.

On Oct. 17, Shahzad had been summoned to the ISI's headquarters to discuss the contents of an article published the day before with two officials from the agency's media wing. That report, published in Asia Times Online, alleged that Pakistan had quietly released Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar's deputy, to take part in talks through the Pakistan army. According to the e-mail, labeled "For future reference" and seen by TIME, one of the officials said the following words to Shahzad: "I must give you a favor. We have recently arrested a terrorist and recovered a lot of data, diaries and other material during the interrogation. The terrorist had a list with him. If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know." Incidentally, the two ISI officials present at the meeting, Rear Admiral Adnan Nawaz and Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, are both from the navy. Pervaiz has just been appointed the new commander of the Karachi naval base that was attacked.

Hasan of Human Rights Watch says that statement can be read as a threat. "The tone and the manner in which it was issued did constitute a threat," he says. "Shahzad described it to me." The rest of the meeting, as Shahzad described it in the e-mail, was held in "an extremely polite and friendly atmosphere," but no words were minced. In the e-mail, the ISI official was said to have asked for the source of his story. Shahzad writes that he would not name the source, but said he had been told the information by an intelligence official and later confirmed the story from "the most credible Taliban source." According to Shahzad's account, he was asked to "write a denial of the story" but "refused to comply with the [ISI] demand."

Many of Shahzad's media colleagues speculate that the ISI is holding him to extract the identities of his sources. "It is very difficult to say what they want from him," says Hasan. "But when the ISI picks up journalists in this manner, they are often subjected to mistreatment and torture. The longer he stays in their custody, the greater the likelihood is that he will be tortured."

Last September, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for the News, an influential Pakistani daily, was kidnapped, blindfolded, stripped naked, had his head and eyebrows shaved, beaten, filmed in humiliating positions and dumped on the side of the road six hours later. "If you can't avoid rape," one of his interrogators jeered during the ordeal, "enjoy it." The perpetrators were never found, but when asked about his suspicions, Cheema told the New York Times: "I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI."

The disappearance of Shahzad is a reminder of the multiple hazards faced by journalists working in Pakistan. In January, Wali Khan Babar, a respected reporter for Geo News, was gunned down in Karachi. Last month reporter Abdullah Bhittani cheated death after being shot three times in Rawalpindi, while a radio station in the northwest town of Charsadda was bombed. Bhittani has recovered, but with 10 slain journalists last year, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. called Pakistan "the deadliest country in the world for journalists." Reporters Without Borders ranked it 151 out of 178 countries when it comes to press freedom.

The principal threats, human-rights campaigners say, come from military-intelligence agencies and Islamist militants. "As a consequence, it is becoming difficult for journalists to perform their basic professional duties in the context of a war between the Pakistani state and the militants," Hasan says. "Both parties target journalists, arbitrarily and with brutality." Human Rights Watch has called on Pakistan's government to locate Shahzad, return him safely to his home and hold those who held him "illegally" accountable. "To date, no intelligence personnel have been held accountable for frequently perpetrated abuses against journalists," laments Hasan. "Tolerance for these practices has to end, now."

U.S.-Pakistan ties and the curse of secrecy

When President Barack Obama telephoned Pakistan’s president to say U.S. forces had found and killed bin Laden, he offered him a choice. He could say Pakistan helped find bin Laden, or that it knew nothing, according to a senior western official. Pakistan initially chose to stress the former – that it had helped – but later shifted to condemning what it called the U.S. violation of its sovereignty.

The story illustrates the complicity between the United States and Pakistan in their deliberately ambiguous relationship. This ambiguity has its uses. It allows Washington to keep working with Pakistan in the face of angry questions at home about why Osama bin Laden was living there. And it lets Pakistan cooperate with the United States, for example on drone attacks, while trying — not particularly successfully — to minimise the domestic backlash.

But the result of that ambiguity has been a disconnect between the leadership of both the United States and Pakistan and their own people, who have little knowledge of the understandings being reached in the many high-level meetings between the two countries (and which will continue despite the deep distrust on both sides.)

As Christine Fair says in her interview with NBR, ”the Obama administration has had no illusions about Pakistan.” When it took office, it had full knowledge of Pakistan’s reluctance to eradicate militant groups, and indeed of the rapid expansion of its nuclear programme. But she added, “the Obama administration, like past administrations, has been willing to look the other way when it deems necessary.”

And for all the furious debate in both countries about the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations, “the leaderships of both countries know that they need each other in ways that are both humiliating and difficult to explain to publics that are ever more outraged and appalled by the perfidy of the other.”

The problem with this pattern of public fury and private reconciliation is that it leaves very little room to build trust between the two countries and almost no scope for properly informed public debate. Some secrecy is of course needed in war and diplomacy. But with the United States and Pakistan, it has become the automatic default position.

This secrecy and complicity did not just start with bin Laden and drone strikes. It goes way back to U-2 spy planes flying over the Soviet Union – Gary Powers, shot down in Russia in 1960, took off from Peshawar. It goes back to the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989, when Washington knew Pakistan would be forced to lie to the Soviet Union about its involvement for fear of inviting Russian retaliation on its own soil. It goes back to the United States turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s expanding nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s.

The United States is now talking about establishing new ground rules for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. So how about introducing some openness into those new ground rules?

Consider one example where transparency just might be less damaging than secrecy.

The United States, which has begun tentative direct talks with representatives of the Taliban, wants Pakistan to facilitate the process of reconciliation. So does Pakistan (though they may not see eye-to-eye on how it should work.) As far as I understand from conversations with officials from various countries, including from Pakistan, these talks are not about reaching a straight-forward power-sharing agreement with the Taliban that would allow U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. Rather they are one part of a wider and complex process meant eventually to bring all Afghan parties into a broad political settlement.

Yet such is the secrecy around the talks that there is a serious risk that if enough people believe the Taliban are about to return to power, their opponents will prepare for civil war, building up arms and funding in a way that makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, writes here about his visit to the country in March, “there is a desperate need to clarify U.S. intentions. From President Hamid Karzai to his opponents to non-political Afghans, I found everyone asking what our long-term goals are. Afghanistan is a traumatized nation after 30 years of conflict. Doubts about American intentions lead to conspiracy theories, hedging strategies and even talk of civil war if too much haste to reach a political settlement means the Taliban could be returned to power — something that many Afghans who suffered under the Taliban’s savage rule are determined to resist at all costs. ”

I have written before that there is rather greater strategic convergence between the United States and Pakistan than appears on the surface. Both want stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan - rather than wanting to reinstall a Taliban government in Kabul - has been insisting for a while it wants a stable and neutral Afghanistan. Both the United States and Pakistan want stability in Pakistan- such a statement of the obvious that it is often overlooked.

Meanwhile, India – always the elephant in the room in discussions about Pakistan – has begun a slow but steady attempt at peace-making - its focus nowadays being very much on doing what it takes to build its economy. Pakistan desperately needs to salvage its own economy – a view, analysts say, also promoted by army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who sees the country’s security as coming from its economic strength. If a political settlement in Afghanistan and an India-Pakistan thaw were to open up trade across the region, all three countries would benefit and the gain of one would not necessarily be at the expense of the other (this idea at the moment is largely aspirational – but the fact that it is on the table at all shows how much times have changed.)

So arguably, both the United States and Pakistan are roughly on the same page on what needs to happen. Yet their relations are a tactical and emotional disaster. Those long decades of secrecy have not helped. As Najam Sethi wrote in his column, the “carefully contrived and mutually agreed ambiguity has now run aground.”

If something needs to change in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, there is one approach that has not been tried yet. Try breaking that habit of confining neary everything to secret understandings between military and political leaderships, and instead trusting the people of the countries affected — and that includes Afghanistan — to have a properly informed debate about what is the best way to bring stability to the region.

Whose side is Pakistan's ISI really on?

It has been accused of supporting al-Qaida and double-dealing with the CIA. At the same time the ISI, Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, is being targeted by Islamist extremists. In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, what role will it play?
If there was one telling moment in Pakistan in the 10 days since Osama bin Laden's death, when a Hollywood-style American assault on a suburban house left the country reeling, torn between anger, shame and denial, it occurred late one evening on a prime-time television show hosted by Kamran Khan.

Chatshow hosts are the secular mullahs of modern Pakistan: fist-banging populists who preach to the nation over supper, often through a rightwing lens. Khan, a tubby 50-year-old journalist with neat glasses and a small chin, is the biggest of them. Every night on Geo, the largest channel, he rails against "corrupt" civilian politicians and America, and lionises the armed forces; some colleagues nickname him "the brigadier". But as the country seethed over Bin Laden last week, Khan tore off his metaphorical stripes and stamped them into the ground.

The army had failed its people, he railed. To Pakistan's shame US soldiers had invaded the country; their finding Bin Laden in Abbottabad, two hours north of Islamabad, was a disgrace. The country's "two-faced" approach to extremism had disastrously backfired, he said, reeling off a list of atrocities – New York, Bali, London, Madrid – linked to Pakistan. "We have become the world's biggest haven of terrorism," he declared. "We need to change." Viewers watched in astonishment. The unprecedented attack targeted not only the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, but also the most sensitive policies of the military's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Feared, reviled and admired in equal measure, the ISI is considered the embodiment of army power in Pakistan, the object of hushed deference. But now, as one US official told me, "the world has changed". And the ISI finds itself in the line of fire.

The Bin Laden debacle has triggered a blizzard of uncomfortable questions, the sharpest come from Washington. How, President Barack Obama wondered aloud last Sunday, could Bin Laden shelter for years in a garrison town that is home to three regimental headquarters, the local version of Sandhurst, and thousands of soldiers? One retired US officer who has served in the region told me he had been mulling the same question. "All those times we drove up to Abbottabad, and we could have taken out our pistols and done the job ourselves," he said. The CIA chief Leon Panetta, meanwhile, says he didn't warn the ISI about the special forces raid because he feared word might leak to the al-Qaida leader. Behind the pointed statements lies an urgent question: was the ISI hiding Bin Laden?

The answer may lie inside the ISI's headquarters in Abpara, on the edge of Islamabad. The entrance, beside a private hospital, is suitably discreet: no sign, just a plainclothes officer packing a pistol who direct visitors through a chicane of barriers, soldiers and sniffer dogs. But inside, past the smooth electric gates, lies a neatly tended cluster of adobe buildings separated by smooth lawns and tinkling fountains that resembles a well-funded private university. Cars purr up to the entrance of the central building, a modern structure with a round, echoing lobby. On the top floor sits the chief spy: the director general Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a grey-haired 59-year-old three-star general. One American counterpart describes him as "brilliant and extremely intelligent . . . Thoughtful, pensive and extremely well read; if he was in the US military he would be a very successful officer."

Pasha and the ISI are the heart of Pakistan's "establishment" – a nebulous web of generals, bureaucrats and hand-picked politicians (not always elected ones) who form the DNA of Pakistan's defence and security policies. It has at least 10,000 employees (some say twice as many), mixing serving army officers, many on three-year rotations from other services, with thousands of civilian employees, from suited analysts to beefy street spies. In theory they answer to the prime minister; in reality they are a tool of the army chief, Kayani. To supporters, the ISI safeguards national security – monitoring phones, guarding the country's nuclear weapons. But to its many critics, the ISI is the army's dirty tricks department, accused of abduction and assassination, vote-rigging and torture, and running Islamist terrorist outfits. "The ISI," said Minoo Bhandara, an outspoken Parsi businessman who ran a brewery across the road from army headquarters before he died in 2008, "is an institution full of intelligence but devoid of wisdom."

Oddly, it was founded by an Australian. As Pakistan recovered from its disastrous first war with India in 1948, Major General R Cawthorne, on secondment from the British army, decided the fledgling military needed a proper intelligence outfit. The first decades were inauspicious. The ISI mishandled the 1965 war with India and failed to predict the East Pakistan conflict in 1971, which sundered Pakistan in two and created Bangladesh. All changed, however, eight years later when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979. The decade-long war of resistance – bankrolled by the United States, fought by Afghans and Arabs, but largely run by the ISI from Pakistan's tribal areas – revolutionised the agency's fortunes. It ran a network of secret training camps along the Afghan border that trained more than 80,000 fighters. It controlled a weapons pipeline, funded by the CIA and Saudi intelligence, that smuggled Kalashnikovs and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from Karachi to the Khyber Pass. And it grew powerful and rich.

A legendary figure from that period was a man named Colonel Imam, whom I first met five years ago. He was tall and burly, with a thick beard and a crooked smile that suggested several missing teeth. He wore a white turban and an olive-green, British issue second world war-issue paratroop jacket, which he told me he had been wearing since he joined the army in 1971. During the 80s, Imam ran many of the ISI training camps, becoming popular among ethnic Pashtun fighters for his love of Islam and his fondness for killing Soviets. "Those were wonderful times," he told me. Although his real name was Sultan Amir, to the Afghans he became "Colonel Imam". "I loved the fight. And the mujahideen were very fond of me," he said with a smile.

The US liked him too. On the wall of his Rawalpindi home hung war trophies from the 80s – daggers, faded photos, a Russian general's gun – but on the table sat a chunk of the Berlin wall, cased in glass. "To one who helped deliver the first blow," it read. "The Americans gave me that," he said.

With the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the CIA largely abandoned Pakistan. But the spirit of "jihad" – fighters imbued with Islamist vim – lived on in the ISI. Pakistani officers, having imbibed too much of their own ideology, transformed the spy agency. It started to support Islamist groups across Asia – Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Burma, India – and the US placed Pakistan on a terrorist watchlist. In 1993, Javed Ashraf Qazi, a secular-minded general officer, was sent in to clean up the mess. "I was shocked at what I found," he tells me. Senior ISI officers had jettisoned their uniforms for shalwar kameez; their subordinates would disappear off to the mosque for hours on end. The ISI had bought a hotel in Bangkok, probably to facilitate gun-running. The outgoing spy chief, Javed Nasir, was a playboy turned zealot who had grown a scraggly beard and refused to shake women's hands. On his first day in the office Qazi found him running out of the door to a Muslim missionary conference. "When people say the ISI is a rogue agency, it was true in those days," he says.

Qazi fired the ideologues, sold the hotel and ordered his subordinates to wear their uniforms (some struggled to fit in them). "We cleaned it up," says Qazi, who later became a minister under Pervez Musharraf.

But the ISI was not done with jihad; it had merely narrowed its focus. The proof is on the wall of Qazi's home. I notice an unusual rifle hanging on the wall. It is an Indian service rifle, Qazi admits half bashfully – a present from one of the "mujahideen" fighters the ISI started to send into Indian-occupied Kashmir from the mid 90s, when he was in charge. "We turned a blind eye to some groups," he says. They included Lashkar-e-Toiba, he admits – the terrorist outfit that in 2008 would attack hotels and train stations in the Indian city of Mumbai, killing 170 people.

In the early 90s, the ISI also started to support an obscure Islamist movement in Afghanistan called the Taliban. Colonel Imam was sent back into Afghanistan to advise the one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar. They had history: Imam, it turned out, had trained Omar back in the mujahideen camps in the 80s. With ISI backing, the Taliban swept to power in Kabul; at the UN in New York, a beleaguered Afghan official complained that Imam was the "de facto governor" of the newly conquered territories. "Ah, they are naughty people," Imam told me of the Taliban with his shy smile. "Rough people, good fighters, but respected. And they were all my friends."

Over the past decade, however, the ISI has professed to have abandoned jihad. As American troops swarmed across Afghanistan, in search of Bin Laden in late 2001, President General Pervez Musharraf disavowed the Taliban, sacked his most Islamist generals (including the then ISI director, Mahmud Ahmed) and brought Colonel Imam home. The following January he made a signature speech banning a slew of jihadi groups. "We need to rid society of extremism," he declared.

On the ground, though, things have looked different. US diplomatic cables released through WikiLeaks last year claimed the ISI was still covertly supporting the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Haqqani network, as part of its decades-old grudge match with India. And despite billions of dollars in American assistance, wrote ambassador Anne Patterson, "no amount of money" was likely to make the army – or the ISI – change direction.

Simultaneously, though, the ISI has become a victim of jihadi violence. The Pakistani Taliban – related to the Afghan movement, but separate, and heavily influenced by al-Qaida – is seeking to oust the Pakistani state. The ISI, deemed to have betrayed them, has become the enemy. Hundreds of ISI officials have died in recent years, killed in bombings of buses and offices, and ISI spies have been beheaded in the tribal belt. In the latest atrocity on 8 March a massive car bomb outside an ISI office in Faisalabad destroyed an airline office and killed 32 people.

I last saw Colonel Imam in January 2010 at his home in Rawalpindi. He joked about media articles describing him as the "father of the Taliban". Weeks later he set off for Waziristan with another former ISI man, Khawaja, and a British journalist, Asad Qureshi, who had been commissioned by Channel 4, to interview the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. But the Taliban took them hostage. After a few weeks Khawaja was executed, after confessing on video to being a "CIA spy". Qureshi was released in September after his family paid a hefty ransom. Then last January, a video of Imam surfaced showing him kneeling before a group of masked, armed men. Mehsud appeared, and said a few words. Then a Talib opened fire, pumped Imam with bullets.

"When you're Frankenstein, and you create a lot of baby monsters who are running round your ankles looking sort of cute, they eventually grow up to be recalcitrant adults," a US official tells me in Islamabad. "And you hope you can get them back into the fold so they become useful. But the Pakistanis can't control everything they create."

Could the ISI's complex policy towards jihadi militants have caused it to harbour Bin Laden? Its many critics have little doubt, particularly in Afghanistan; last week the former Kabul spy chief Amrullah Saleh said he warned Musharraf about Bin Laden four years ago, only to be rowdily shouted down. Now Musharraf himself admits it's a possibility, albeit one limited to "rogue" officers. Yesterday he told ABC News there was a "possibility" of a "lower-level operative . . . following a policy of his own and violating the policy from above". But could it be done with the knowledge of the top generals? Opinion is split between agnostics and sceptics. "Did Pasha know? It's entirely implausible that he didn't," says a former western military official who has worked in Pakistan. A senior diplomat sees it differently. Perhaps the ISI is neither complicit or incompetent, he says. Maybe they just didn't look. "Looking for Osama may not have been a big priority when not finding him earns you billions of dollars a year, and if you did the Americans would leave the region," he says.

The ISI itself points to its consistent record in fighting al-Qaida. Over the past decade it has rounded up hundreds of Islamist suspects, many dispatched to Guantánamo Bay. They include the most notorious al-Qaida henchmen: Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, architect of the 9/11 attacks, snatched from a Rawalpindi safehouse in 2003; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, captured after a gun battle a year earlier; Abu Faraj al-Libi, then the al-Qaida number three, arrested in Mardan in 2005 by ISI commandos wearing burka disguises. Not finding Bin Laden was "a failure on our side," admits an ISI official. "Unfortunate, but a fact. We are good but we are not God."

Yet the questions remain. How did Bin Laden avoid ISI surveillance in a military area, just a few hundred metres from a major military base, in a zone where military intelligence traditionally keeps a close eye? And what about the army major who recently built his house just behind Osama's? Did he not wonder about his neighbour with the barbed-wire fence and the security cameras perched on the wall? "I find it entirely implausible that the military and intelligence agencies knew nothing," says Dr Farzana Sheikh, author of Making Sense of Pakistan. "There must have been knowledge at the highest levels." But, along with so many other critics, she concedes "there is no proof". In a country where so many pressing mysteries remain unresolved – from the plane crash that killed General Zia ul-Haq in 1988, to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 – few are holding their breath.

There could, at least, be accountability, although hopes are fading fast. As television anchors raged and criticism of the army swelled last week, some hoped Pakistan's civilian leadership would seize the moment to claw back part of the power it has ceded over the past 30 years. Yet those hopes were dashed on Monday when prime minister Gilani stood up in parliament for a stout defence of the generals. "The ISI is a national asset," he said. The battle, if it had ever been contemplated, was lost.

In America the scrutiny will not vanish so easily. Angry congressional leaders have called for Pakistan's $3bn annual aid package to be slashed; hostile media coverage portraying the ISI as an enemy unit is growing. Government officials, however, are more circumspect. With Nato's main military supply line running through Pakistan, other al-Qaida figures still at large including Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a peace settlement to be negotiated in Afghanistan, many quietly speak of the need to eventually patch up the Pakistan relationship – although few doubt that it has been utterly changed over the past 10 days. "We can't break it, it's too important," says one US official. "We're going to have to sit down across the table and try and tell some truths to each other."

Still, he adds: "There are degrees in truth. We would like to have a degree of the truth."

American popular opinion may be less nuanced. The forthcoming trial of David Headley, an American jihadi accused of helping Lashkar-e-Taiba carry out the Mumbai attacks, is likely to bring fresh accusations of ISI "double-game". And movie culture is likely to have a strong influence. Even before Bin Laden died an action thriller called tentatively "Kill Bin Laden", by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, was in the works. Now many more will surely follow. In the coming months, casting directors will start seeking actors to play macho navy Seals, a tense American president and an elusive Saudi fugitive. And, almost certainly, they will be looking for a clutch of double-dealing Pakistani spies. In the ISI, Hollywood may have found a new bad guy.

Mother of all embarrassments

Ayaz Amir

For a country with more than its share of misfortunes and sheer bad luck, we could have done without this warrior of the faith, Osama bin Laden, spreading his beneficence amongst us. He was a headache for us while he lived, but nothing short of a catastrophe in his death. For his killing, and the manner of it, have exposed Pakistan and its security establishment like nothing else.

To say that our security czars and assorted knights have been caught with their pants down would be the understatement of the century. This is the mother of all embarrassments, showing us either to be incompetent – it can’t get any worse than this, Osama living in a sprawling compound a short walk from that nursery school of the army, the Pakistan Military Academy and, if we are to believe this, our ever-vigilant eyes and ears knowing nothing about it – or, heaven forbid, complicit.

I would settle for incompetence anytime because the implications of complicity are too dreadful to contemplate.

And the Americans came, swooping over the mountains, right into the heart of the compound, and after carrying out their operation flew away into the moonless night without our formidable guardians of national security knowing anything about it. This is to pour salt over our wounds. The obvious question which even a child would raise is that if a cantonment crawling with the army such as Abbottabad is not safe from stealthy assault what does it say about the safety of our famous nuke capability, the mainstay of national pride and defence?

Barely 24 hours before the Osama assault General Kayani, at a ceremony in General Headquarters in remembrance of our soldiers killed in our Taliban wars, was describing the army as the defender of the country’s ideological and geographical frontiers. For the time being, I think, we should concentrate on ideology and leave geography well alone, the Abbottabad assault having made a mockery of our geographical frontiers.

Every other country in the world is happy if its armed forces can defend geography. We are the only country in the world which waxes lyrical about ideological frontiers. To us alone belongs the distinction of calling ourselves a fortress of Islam.

In the wake of the Raymond Davis affair a certain sternness had crept into our tone with the Americans, as we told them that they would have to curtail their footprint in Pakistan. I wonder what we tell them now. It is not difficult to imagine the smile on American lips when we now speak of the absolute necessity of minimising CIA activities.

With whom the gods would jest, they first make ridiculous. The hardest thing to bear in this saga is not wounded pride or breached sovereignty but our exposure to ridicule. Osama made us suffer in life and has made us look ridiculous after his death. Around the tallest mountains there is the echo of too much laughter at our expense.

Consider also the Foreign Office statement of May 3, “As far as the target compound is concerned, ISI had been sharing information with CIA...since 2009....It is important to highlight that taking advantage of much superior technological assets, CIA exploited intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Laden.” This is hilarious. If we were aware of the compound and had suspicions about its occupants what ‘superior technological assets’ were required to go in and find out?

But what takes the cake is the stern warning attached: “This event of unauthorised unilateral action cannot be taken as a rule. The government of Pakistan further affirms that such an event shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the US.” We can imagine the CIA trembling in its shoes. My son burst out laughing when he read this. If the Americans get a clue to the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Mullah Omar will they ask our permission before sending their SEAL teams in?

The CIA chief, Leon Panetta, has rubbed the point in: “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets.” That’s about the level of trust we seem to inspire.

Anyway, trust Prime Minister Gilani to put it best, that the failure to find Osama for so long was not just Pakistan’s failure but that of intelligence agencies around the world. This is really cool, absolving ourselves of all responsibility even when Osama is discovered within walking distance of PMA Kakul.

We have some funny notions of sovereignty and national honour. The CIA spreading itself wide in Pakistan is a breach of national sovereignty, and rightly so. And American boots on the ground, as in Abbottabad, are totally unacceptable. But when it comes to Al Qaeda using Pakistan as a base, Sirajuddin Haqqani and the rest of the Taliban holed up in North Waziristan and Taliban elements in Quetta, we somehow can’t work up the same outrage.

We already had a tough job on our hands convincing the world of our bona fides. After the Osama operation it gets that much tougher.

In an ideal world this should be a wakeup call for Pakistan, an opportunity for some honest introspection and a hard look at some of the bizarre notions underpinning our theories of national security. Must we spend so much on defence? Is the world engaged in a conspiracy to undermine our foundations? Aren’t our nuclear weapons enough to give us a sense of security? Hasn’t the time come to curb some of our zest for nurturing and sustaining jihadi militias? And isn’t it time we stopped fretting so much about Afghanistan and made internal order and prosperity the principal focus of our endeavours?

But we do not live in an ideal world and our capacity for self-deception should not be under-estimated. Shaken as we may be by the Osama operation, we can safely assume that we won’t take this as a wakeup call. As the Foreign Office statement vividly shows, we’ll hunt for lame excuses and hide behind false explanations, convinced of our ability to fool the world when the only thing fooled will be ourselves.

So we will keep talking about strategic assets and good and bad Taliban, and about protecting our interests in Afghanistan, and we’ll keep subscribing to theories of Indian hostility and encirclement, because these are the foundations on which stands the peculiar national security state we have constructed, forever threatened and insecure.

If the separation of East Pakistan was not a wakeup call, if Musharraf’s adventure in Kargil wasn’t that either, it is too much to expect that Pakistan’s comprehensive exposure in this saga, the Islamic Republic without its clothes, will lead to any radical departures in national outlook.

Our ruling establishment is too set in its ways and, sadly, the roots of national stupidity run too deep.

And perish the thought of anyone taking responsibility and throwing in his papers. That’s just not the Pakistani way.

But there should be no escaping the fact that from now on we will have to be more careful. All the signs suggest that this may prove to be a milestone of sorts, a dangerous turning point, in that our friends, let alone our enemies, become more sceptical of our pronouncements and increasingly less willing to put up with our hidden and double games.

We will be asked some tough questions and the time for bluster or a show of righteous indignation may have passed.