May 2, 2011
If you are interested in how news starts to follow a narrative especially when facts and boots on the ground are sparse, study the details of the reports on Abbottabad. I happen to have been through Abbottabad as it's on the tail end (or beginning, depending on your direction) of the Karakoram Highway and have a sense of the place. The media has repeatedly defined the city as a suburb of Islamabad (the Pakistani capital) and as a military garrison. Also, interesting, is the description of the house as a mansion/luxury compound and a fortress.
Abbottabad was founded as a British Hill Station, a place where English military officers and officials would escape the heat of cities like Peshawar, Rawalpindi, or Lahore (Islamabad, the Pakistani equivalent of Brazillia, didn't exist yet). The city is a popular tourist destination, weekend getaway, and honeymoon spot for middle and upperclass Pakistanis. THE honeymoon spot is another town called Murree which is higher in the mountains, Abbottabad is sort of a second tier spot.
The city is about 100 km from Islamabad over a road that takes roughly two hours to drive if the traffic isn't terrible which it often is. Many news organizations are reporting the distance between Islamabad and Abbottabad by drawing a straight line on a map without looking at topography. The straight line from Islamabad to Abbottabad crosses very high mountains. The road that actual people travel takes a more circuitous route.
A big prestigious military academy sits on the north side of the town and lots of military folks build retirement and vacation homes there. This is mainly because the Pakistani brass have the the type of money/sway to build houses in popular vacation spots. If you show up in the town center you wouldn't think of the town as being any more or less of military town than any other town in the region (the military has a heavy presence throughout the area). All the cities here have a large number of tribal people and the central government needs the military to reign them in.
Much has been made of the fact that the military owns lots of land in the town, and that the compound couldn't have been built without the military's knowledge, but just as almost everywhere in Pakistan, a little baksheesh greases the wheels and helps avoid questions.
Many if not most of the large homes in the middle and upper middle class areas are surrounded by high walls (often topped by barbed wire or broken glass). Many many multi-family compounds are scattered throughout the city. As far as mansions go, I've seen much nicer looking homes in Pakistan. I presume the primary reason this house stuck out for the intelligence guys was that the size of the house didn't fit the profile of the people who were supposedly living inside it. The lack of phone and internet would also be unusual, but probably not unheard of (many people in Pakistan only use cell phones, and many people, even wealthy ones, are unwired).
A few other impressions: Abbottabad is also something of a college town with dozens of small colleges. Many students would be considered Westernized liberals in Pakistan. One legacy of the British occupation is a sizable Christian population. I distinctly remember hearing church bells in the town. There are still several prominent churches scattered about.
Here are some media characterizations of the city:
"garrison suburb of Abbottabad, about 30 miles from the center of Islamabad" - National Review
"Abbottabad is essentially a military cantonment city in Pakistan, in the hills to the north of the capital of Islamabad, in an area where much of the land is controlled or owned by the Pakistan Army and retired army officers." - New Yorker
"U.S. forces for months had watched the luxury compound in Abbottabad, a city 65 miles from the capital that is home to two Pakistani army regiments" - Washington Post
'"Mansion? Next to a military base? 18 miles from the capital? Staying there for three years?" he said.' - USA Today
" Mr. bin Laden was killed Sunday in a targeted assault in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, roughly 40 miles outside the capital city of Islamabad." - Wall Street Journal
A more accurate representation:
In August 2010, the intelligence agencies found the exact compound where this courier was living, in Abbottabad. That home was in an affluent suburb of a nondescript garrison town, perhaps selected for its very anonymity and, of course, its good communications and ease of access to the tribal zones. - The Guardian
It will be interesting to see how the picture of the town morphs over time.
Photoset of images from Abbottabd