ON THE ROAD TO ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Osama Bin Laden spent at least five years in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, ostensibly without the Pakistani army or intelligence services having any idea he was there.
Yet it took less than an hour Thursday for Pakistani authorities to spot two other non-natives — me and my colleague Melissa Lyttle — and threaten us with arrest.
It was all done with smiles and apologies. But our aborted visit to Abbottabad underscored the mutual suspicion between Pakistan and the United States in the wake of Bin Laden's May 2 killing by Navy commandos.
We arrived in Pakistan early Wednesday, just as U.S.-Pakistani relations were hovering near an all-time low. The United States announced over the weekend that it was withholding nearly $1 billion in aid after Pakistan ordered American military trainers out of the country following the raid.
Pakistani officials already were fuming over comments by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Pakistani government might have sanctioned the torture death of a Pakistani journalist who exposed ties between Islamic militants and the country's intelligence services. Just as we were heading here, Pakistan's intelligence chief was heading to Washington to try to shore up the increasingly shaky U.S.-Pakistani alliance against al-Qaida.
For our first story, Melissa and I decided to visit the place where the world's No. 1 terrorist met his dramatic end and precipitated the current crisis. Back in May, journalists from all over the world had poured into Abbottabad, seemingly without hindrance.
But that was then. Tired of so much unfavorable attention, Pakistan now requires foreigners to get permission before entering the city.
Thus our first stop Thursday was the External Publicity Wing of Pakistan's Ministry of Information. We filled out applications and gave them to the exhausted-looking deputy director, whose two young children were wrestling on an old office sofa.
"They're just out of school,'' she said, sighing the universal sigh of parents contemplating months of summer vacation. She added, with little conviction, that we might get permission in three or four days.
Given our schedule, that was three or four days too long. We decided to go anyway.
Media accounts, eager to reinforce the idea that bin Laden hid in plain sight, have typically described Abbottabad as "just an hour and a half drive'' from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. That would be true if the road all the way was as good as the new six-lane motorway we initially traveled.
But about 35 miles outside of Islamabad, in an area of scenic green hills and small wheat fields, our driver turned off at a sign that said "Abot Abad 50 KM.'' We were soon on a narrow country road, dodging motorbikes and ancient, lumbering trucks lavishly decorated with flowers and evil eyes.
We made it through one village, where enterprising residents charged a 20 rupee toll (about 30 cents) to proceed. We were not so lucky at another village, where a bamboo gate blocked the way and our driver was motioned to pull over.
A tall man, wearing a white skull cap and calf-length white shirt, asked in English to see our passports and visas. He identified himself as an "inspector with the special branch police.''
"That's under the ISI,'' our translator whispered, referring to Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence agency. The same Inter Services Intelligence agency accused of torturing journalists.
In a pleasant tone, the man said he could not prevent us from continuing our journey. But because we didn't have permission to go to Abbottabad, our journey might end in jail.
We turned around.
On the way back, we chatted with some of the villagers we had passed just 10 minutes before. Few believed bin Laden had been in Abbottabad. Many, like gas station owner Malik Mirzar, said bin Laden actually died in 2003 and was buried in Afghanistan.
Mirzar also thought the United States had demanded much of Pakistan without acknowledging Pakistan's own sacrifices, including thousands of soldiers killed in fighting along the Afghan border.
"The Taliban and al-Qaida are not a threat to Pakistan but a threat to the United States,'' he said. "We are very much engaged in another's war.''
But Mohammed Yasin, waiting with his daughter at a bus stop, didn't blame the Americans.
"We are senseless that we all allow these elements to come into our country,'' he said. "It is a mistake.''
Unlike Abbottabad, a relatively cosmopolitan place that is home to Pakistan's main military academy and thousands of retired army officers, the villages along the way appear dirt poor. Surprisingly, though, most people have cable television — it's cheap here — and keep up with current events.
Or at least they do when the power is on.
Throughout Pakistan, whose 189 million citizens make it the world's sixth most populous country, the electricity system is so old and poorly maintained that the lights in many places are off more often than they are on.
Forget about U.S. military aid to Pakistan, said Sadaqat Ali, who owns a wheat mill and serves on a village council.
"If the U.S. can solve our electricity shortfall,'' he said, "all Pakistan will salute America.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]