After the US helicopter assault on Osama bin Laden’s quarters in Abbottabad and his assassination by Navy SEALs in 2011, a shaken Pakistani government set up a commission of inquiry, presided over by a retired judge, Javed Iqbal. Its findings, a part of which was leaked to Al Jazeera this week, reveal the country’s intelligence agencies at loggerheads and in a general state of confusion.
The evidence of General Pasha, the former chief of the ISI, is particularly interesting, with its account of Bin Laden’s travels in Pakistan following the war on Afghanistan, and explanation of how one of his aides used his Pakistani identity card to buy a plot of land not far from the Pakistan military academy. Many of these details are fascinating and the tone of the report may strike many as honest and self-critical.
Yet it is worth clarifying that the overall thrust of the report is to exonerate the intelligence agencies by effectively accepting the official version that the ISI and the Federal Investigation Agency were unaware of Bin Laden’s presence in the country.
The notion that Bin Laden, family and bodyguards left Afghanistan and entered Pakistan in 2002 without the knowledge and help of the ISI is risible. The report is weak on background. For example, it fails to explain that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan was made possible only by heavy Pakistani involvement on every level: the operation was viewed by Pakistan’s general headquarters as a total success, the first in its entire history. The control of Kabul and the southern part of the country supposedly provided Islamabad with ‘strategic depth’.
The links between the ISI and the Taliban regime were intimate. There were differences on some issues but treated by the senior partner as little more than lovers’ tiffs. After 9/11, the Pakistani military were instructed by Washington to facilitate the Nato occupation. General Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, asked for more time and was given two weeks.
An American general warned that if Pakistan did not help it would be bombed to extinction. Musharraf caved in. This resulted in enormous tensions within the army, which was now being asked to reverse its only military triumph and help topple a government it had created.
This was the political atmosphere in which Bin Laden arrived in the country. Whatever the ISI’s failings on the political level, there is little doubt that it is an extremely effective intelligence outfit. Its surveillance techniques are obviously not on the level of the NSA or GCHQ, but its network of well-trained agents do the business as some of their victims have testified.
There is no way that Bin Laden could have slipped into the country unnoticed. He was provided with help at the highest levels in an operation that was regarded as top secret and his whereabouts were known only to three or four people, heads of the intelligence agencies.
I was informed of all this some years ago by a source in the intelligence services who had no idea where Bin Laden was but confirmed that he was in a safe house somewhere in the country. According to this source Pakistan, would hand him over if necessary, but the problem was that George W Bush only wanted his dead body and the Pakistanis were not prepared to kill ‘the golden goose’.
Obviously, nobody within the establishment is going to admit as much to a commission of inquiry, and Justice Iqbal could only pronounce on the basis of the evidence he was able to hear. The resulting report, as self-critical as it may sound, is therefore still a partial cover-up, as it had to be.
As far as the Navy SEALs are concerned, the question considered was whether the Pakistani military had any advance notification. The report suggests not and is extremely critical of the government for ‘dereliction of duty’.
As General Pasha informed the inquiry, a US spy had told him contemptuously that “we can buy anyone in your country”. Anyone? In which case why should one exclude the possibility that a bought person in the military helped with logistics? The details provided in this report offer a number of clues that need further exploration.