ISLAMABAD – Outraged Pakistanis stepped up calls Saturday for top Pakistani government officials to resign following the daring American helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden and embarrassed the nation.
Some of the sharpest language was directed at the army and intelligence chiefs, a rare challenge to arguably the two most powerful men in the country, who are more accustomed to being feared than publicly criticized.
The Pakistani army has said it had no idea bin Laden was hiding for up to six years in Abbottabad, an army town only two and a half hours’ drive from the capital, Islamabad. That claim has met with skepticism from U.S. officials, who have repeatedly criticized Pakistan for failing to crack down on Islamist militants.
But with anti-American sentiment already high in the South Asian nation, many Pakistani citizens were more incensed by the fact that the country’s military was powerless to stop the American raid.
Some lawmakers and analysts expressed hope that civilian leaders can seize on this anger to chip away at the military’s power, but others doubt that even an embarrassment of this scale will shake the status quo.
“It was an attack on our soil, and the army was sleeping,” said Zafar Iqbal, a 61-year-old retired bureaucrat in the central city of Lahore.
He singled out the leaders of Pakistan’s army, air force and the main intelligence organization — Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha — saying they all should be forced to resign.
“All three of these men have brought insult to us, and they deserve all the punishment,” said Iqbal.
The direct criticism of Kayani and Pasha was particularly striking because the two men enjoy a vaunted status in Pakistan due to their role in protecting the country from external threats, especially archenemy India. Some also feared that bad mouthing the shadowy spy agency, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, could cause trouble and possibly even harm.
Kayani has also had strong backing from the U.S. and other NATO countries, which have sought to enlist his help in battling militants along the country’s border with Afghanistan.
It is unclear whether anyone will actually be forced to step down. The Pakistani government is viewed by many as totally unresponsive to the numerous woes plaguing the nation, from a struggling economy to frequent terrorist attacks.
“It is not time to sprinkle salt on wounds,” said Pakistan’s Information Minister Firdous Aashiq Awan when asked about the calls for senior officials to resign. “It is time to apply ointment on the nation’s wounds.”
The Pakistani military also denied reports that the ISI chief, Pasha, planned to resign in the wake of the bin Laden raid.
U.S. Navy SEALs swooped into Abbottabad by helicopter before dawn Monday, killed bin Laden and were on their way back to Afghanistan before the army could respond. The army has said it had no prior knowledge of the operation — a claim backed up by the U.S.
“No one other than the ISI and army chiefs are responsible for this disgrace of American attacks on our homeland,” said Jaffar Ali, a 35-year-old bank employee in the southern city of Karachi. “It is a complete failure of our security.”
In contrast, former Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a lawmaker for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, fixed the blame squarely on President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani — likely motivated in part by past conflict with the two men.
“This is a great violation of our sovereignty, but it is for the president and prime minister to resign and no one else,” Qureshi told reporters Saturday in the central city of Lahore.
The main opposition leader in parliament, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, took a less selective approach. He said anyone from Zardari on down who can be faulted for what happened in Abbottabad should resign.
“This is a call coming from every street of Pakistan,” Khan told reporters in Lahore.