Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has come under severe criticism for saying in a nationally televised speech to the parliament Thursday that al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden had been “martyred.”
Khan was highlighting foreign policy gains of his nearly two-year-old government, particularly improved ties with the United States under President Donald Trump.
He noted that despite being a partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, his country has had a troubled relationship Washington since American special forces killed bin Laden in 2011 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
“They (Americans) came to Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden, martyred him," Khan said.
Martyrs are greatly revered in Islam for sacrificing their lives generally in the fight to uphold the religion.
“What happened next was that the entire world started cursing and denouncing us. Our own ally enters into our country and killing someone but not telling us, while 70,000 Pakistanis have already lost their lives in fighting their (U.S.) war,” Khan noted.
Bin Laden, as head of al-Qaida, oversaw the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Khan’s remarks on Thursday triggered a backlash from opposition lawmakers and social media activists, with some terming them as a “slip of tongue” while others condemned the comments and demanded an apology.
"Imran Khan has fiddled with history, declaring Osama bin Laden as a martyr today," said Khawaja Asif, veteran parliamentarian and former foreign ministry official in his reaction speech to the house.
“Bin Laden brought terrorism to our lands, he was a terrorist through and through and he [premier] calls him shaheed (martyr)?,” Asif said.
Analyst Michael Kugelman at Washington’s Wilson Center tweeted that Khan’s description of bin Laden as a martyr badly undermined Pakistan’s narrative that the country no longer supports terrorists.
“If he just misspoke, one would expect a clarification. It's not a good look, no matter how you slice it,” Kugelman said.
Responding to the criticism, a spokesman for the prime minister issued a clarification, saying that Khan “twice used the word 'killed' for bin Laden.
Khan’s spokesman, Shahbaz Gill, tweeted that an “unwarranted” attempt was being made to make Khan’s remarks controversial unnecessarily.
“PM’s and Pakistan’s commitment against terrorism is unwavering, and our track record in eliminating this menace is better than anyone else in the world,” Gill said.
The U.S. military tracked down bin Laden and his hideout in a place next to Pakistan’s military academy, strengthening long-running allegations that the country’s powerful security institution had not severed ties with terrorists it was fighting as a U.S. ally.
Pakistan has consistently denied the charges and maintains its security institutions were unaware of bin Laden’s presence in the country.
Islamabad strongly protested the U.S. raid that was seen as a major national embarrassment for Pakistan. It also downgraded security ties with the U.S. and withdrew facilities, including bases, that Pakistan had provided to Washington for conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
In his remarks Thursday, Khan accused previous Pakistani governments of not taking steps to address the humiliation being inflicted on the country. Khan said his government has from the outset made it clear that Pakistan will not be America’s partner in the war but will be a partner in peace efforts in Afghanistan.
“Today our relationship with them (the U.S.) is based on trust. No one is telling us anymore that we are being duplicitous and deceitful because we are not fighting anyone’s war now,” he said.
“Whenever I have meeting [with] Donald Trump he always gives us respect and does not ask us to do more. Instead, he requests us for more help in bringing peace to Afghanistan,” Khan asserted.