The embarrassing revelation that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was living in a military garrison town and the fallout from the US raid that killed him are threatening to bring down Pakistan’s government and force early elections.
Since Pakistanis woke up to the shocking news from the city of Abbottabad on May 2, confidence in the country’s civilian government and military has crumbled, both at home and abroad.
If the masses showed little inclination to mourn the al-Qaeda leader’s death or denounce the US raid, they have loudly lamented the humiliating failures of their much-garlanded military to root him out on their doorstep.
In a nadir some likened to 1971, when a third of the country broke away to form Bangladesh, analysts said civilian politicians might at last have a chance to put the military in their place and assert their grip on power.
Criticism of the military has been nearly unprecedented over suspicions it was incompetent or complicit in hiding bin Laden, clueless that the US had invaded their airspace and powerless to stop them.
Compounding the situation, a series of spectacular bomb attacks, claimed by the Taliban to avenge the killing, have fueled concerns that the military is too weak to protect itself, let alone the country.
“The deteriorating security situation may lead to collapse of the government,” said political analyst Khurram Abbas from the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. The current administration’s five-year term is due to end in 2013.
Exploiting the fallout are main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who opinion polls predict would win any snap election, and former cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan.
Their knives have been out for the government, painting the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led administration as a puppet dancing to Washington’s tune, though they have not outlined how they would root out Islamist extremism.
“The Abbottabad incident offered it a chance to establish its hold on security and other matters, but it failed,” said Mutahir Sheikh, international relations professor at Karachi University.
“The prime minister’s priority is to complete his five-year term. But he has no foreign minister, his interior minister is not clear in his policy and the internal security is continuously deteriorating. People are pinning hopes on Nawaz Sharif. If he can take a stand and boycott parliament there is possibility of fresh elections,” Sheikh said.
It took 10 hours for members of parliament to agree to a joint statement on May 13, when army chief Ashfaq Kayani and intelligence chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha briefed parliamentarians on the bin Laden attack.
It demanded no repeat of the US raid, despite the White House reserving the right to do so, and an end to US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal northwest — both impossible for the aid-dependent government to implement.
Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), said that if the government “fails or violates” the resolution “we may say a fresh mandate is needed.”
“We want the resolution enforced. The nation wants those found guilty of criminal negligence or security lapses to be penalised,” he said. “There are several options. PML-N lawmakers can resign or the party can call for mass demonstrations across the country or stage a long march to Islamabad.”