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Abbottabad’s Secrets

By Saim Saeed

On the surface, Abbottabad—the town in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed yesterday by U.S. forces—is a very pleasant place. Nestled between the Hindu Kush and the plains of the Punjab, Abbottabad’s landscape is lush. Green trees line the rolling hills and the streets during the spring. It rains often and there is a perpetual cool breeze, keeping residents in light sweaters and leather jackets. Before terrorism destroyed the tourism industry of Pakistan, Abbottabad was to Pakistanis what the Adirondacks are to New Yorkers. It brought cool, respite, and natural beauty to the hot, humid, and overworked residents of the plains. The colonial aura increased its appeal, giving the city an aura of sophistication that extended to its residents.

Abbottabad is home to the Pakistani equivalent of West Point and Sandhurst, the Pakistani Military Academy at Kakul. This institution has, for better or worse, churned out the majority of the leaders that have ruled Pakistan from its inception, and many officials would say it continues to do so, despite the current civilian government. Around the area, one can find golf courses, and centuries-old boarding schools that the British established with names like Burn Hall Academy, Lawrence College and Abbottabad “Public” School.

Interestingly, Abbottabad is one of the few cities in Pakistan where the ruling establishment deliberately sought to retain its colonial heritage. It is named for Sir James Abbott, who founded the town after the British annexation of Punjab in 1853.

After independence, Lyallpur was changed to Faisalabad, and the North West Frontier Provinces became Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But Abbottabad remained Abbottabad.

A colonial mindset still defines the military elite who call it home today. The war may continue in Waziristan, terrorism may be on the rise in the chaotic cities of Lahore and Karachi. But amidst the sleepy cottages that line Abbottabad’s streets, and in the grandiose homes and offices of its military elite, the tumult engulfing the rest of the country always seemed a world away.

That is, until yesterday. Bin Laden had been living in a large, high-walled mansion right under the noses of the Pakistani military establishment, in a town far away from the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  It’s difficult to know what to make of this. Is it a sign of complicity, or incompetence? Or some combination of the two? It seems that the mansions and compounds of Abbottabad contain many more secrets, yet to be revealed.

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Saim Saeed is an intern at the World Policy Institute. This summer, he will be working at The News, a daily newspaper in Karachi, his hometown.

Photo courtesy of flickr user geoaxis.

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