x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A bungled PR job keeps the bin Laden controversy alive

The varying reports of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden have raised more questions than answers for Barack Obama's administration.

The killing of Osama bin Laden - a man who was responsible for numerous acts of mass murder - should have been the end of a story.

The essential elements of how he met his death are assuredly true: he was tracked down by intelligence agencies; with President Barack Obama's authorisation a military operation was meticulously designed; after weighing the prospects for success Mr Obama dispatched a team; as the plan was being carried out bin Laden was killed.

That much is clear. It is the rest that is murky and problematic.

First and foremost are questions that have arisen because of the clumsy way the story was told. Confusion and contradictions regarding "mechanical difficulties", "human shields", "firefights", "burial at sea", etc have provided grist for the mill in the US and Arab media. This has allowed commentators to spin the story to their purposes.

For US conservatives on television and talk radio, for example, the initial version was best. In this flight of fancy, the cowardly bin Laden lived in a multimillion dollar mansion and hid behind a woman. And as they gloated, some embellished the story further to the delight of their listeners.

Others were concerned why bin Laden was killed instead of captured, concerns that were magnified by conflicting information.

In the Middle East, some who already distrusted the US picked out those parts that fit their biases to construct alternative narratives. In some versions, an unarmed bin Laden was wilfully executed; in others, he and his allies fought a pitched battle, shot down a helicopter and held off their attackers. And then there were others, albeit a minority, who did not believe the story at all, dismissing it as a self-serving fabrication.

The disposal of bin Laden's corpse complicated the issue. While an attempt was made to adhere to religious requirements, the details only generated a debate among some Muslim scholars who took issue with the description of the ritual or the very notion that burial at sea was appropriate.

Instead of the story being buried with bin Laden, demands persist for more clarification and the release off photographic evidence.

None of this, of course, points to widespread support for bin Laden and his movement that has killed so many innocents in the Middle East, North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. What it reveals is the troubling lack of trust of the US in many Arab and Muslim countries. This clumsy handling of bin Laden's death, which should have provided closure, only exposed the depths of division and mistrust.

At one point, Mr Obama was forced to shut down the discussion. This was appropriate, because feeding the media beast would never have sated its hunger, and releasing the pictures would have resolved nothing. Not unlike the "birther" dispute in the US, which questioned Mr Obama's birth place, disbelievers would have rejected the photos anyway. Remember, bin Laden's boasts on video about September 11 were dismissed by some as a conspiracy. The photos would have revealed only bloodied faces that, like the story, would have been interpreted through a biased lens.

A second and troubling aspect of this episode has been the effect it will have on US-Pakistan relations and on internal Pakistani politics. Questions are being asked about whether Pakistan knew about bin Laden's presence in an obviously conspicuous compound located close to a military academy. If they didn't know, then equally disturbing questions should be asked about their intelligence capabilities.

It is interesting to note that nearly identical concerns are being raised in the US Congress and Pakistan's Parliament, although for different reasons. Congress wants to know whether or not Pakistan can be trusted as an honest and effective ally deserving of billions of dollars in US military and economic aid. On Pakistan's side, legislators are asking whether their military and intelligence services can be trusted to protect the country's sovereignty from being violated either by the likes of bin Laden or by a US assault. With the country reeling from a war against elements of the Taliban and terrorists within its borders, widespread resentment against US drone attacks, and the recent killing of Pakistanis by a US intelligence official, the raid against bin Laden stirred an already simmering pot.

How this all plays out in domestic politics and in the bilateral relationship will be critical for stability in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Further erosion in trust, a breakdown in ties or a cut in aid would make an already bad situation worse.

For his part, Mr Obama has handled the moment well. Instead of indulging in an unbecoming display of victory or "mission accomplished" celebrations, his response has been tempered and thoughtful. His quiet appearance at New York's ground zero was a dignified act of remembrance.

The United States is left with memories of pain from September 11, and the knowledge that in 10 years it has compounded that horror with two misguided and unfinished wars. Many have lost their lives in the last 10 years, and the United States' image has been tarnished and its values eroded.

It might have been too much to hope that the end of bin Laden would have brought a degree of finality, closing one chapter of this still unfolding tale.

In fact, his death might have enabled some closure except that the story was, sadly, handled so clumsily.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute