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Osama bin Laden: Pakistan faces the music

Commentary, 4 May 2011
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
Even though diplomatic tension simmers between Pakistan and the United States over the death of Bin Laden, the tension may well be short-lived. Islamabad will continue its narrative of ignorance; Washington, in turn, will continue to fictionalise Pakistan's sovereignty as it reaps the fruits of Operation Geronimo.

Even though diplomatic tension simmers between Pakistan and the United States over the death of Bin Laden, the tension may well be short-lived. Islamabad will continue its narrative of ignorance; Washington, in turn, will continue to fictionalise Pakistan's sovereignty as it reaps the fruits of Operation Geronimo.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

Robert Gates and General Kayani

Since Pakistan's creation in 1947, Pakistan's military establishment has been accused of sponsoring, sometimes with the assent of civilian rulers and sometimes without, assorted insurgents and terrorists - first in Kashmir, later in Afghanistan, and finally with groups of global reach, like Lashkar-e-Taiba. [1]

That legacy came to a head at the beginning of May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was captured a short distance from Pakistan's equivalent to Sandhurst, in a garrison town named after a colonial-era British officer. Abbotabad, only 60 kilometres from the capital city Islamabad, also houses the 2nd Division of the Northern Army Corps. In short, Bin Laden was found at a site with impeccably establishment credentials. 

Though information remains scarce, three questions are paramount.

Was Pakistan in the dark?

First, could this really have been - as both Pakistan and the US now claim - a purely American operation, undertaken without the foreknowledge, let alone assistance, of the Pakistan Army?
CIA director Leon Panetta, in his first interview after the raid, insisted that 'it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets'. But it is almost to impossible to accept that Pakistan did not, in some way, play an enabling, if passive, role. 

The US task force comprised at least 20 to 25 helicopter-borne US Navy SEALs from the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), commanded by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is reported that they flew from Afghanistan to Tarbela Ghazi Airbase in the northwest of Pakistan, but they may have flown directly from Jalalabad in Afghanistan. 

Four MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters made the journey. [2] These were modified versions so as to render the aircraft less vulnerable to detection by radar or other means, but they flew low enough to alert local residents. Some reports suggest that a C-130 aircraft, equipped with radar jamming equipment, assisted in suppressing Pakistani radar.

But neither this, nor the low moon luminosity, sufficiently explain why the raid went unnoticed by the nearby cadets and officers of the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy. As a militarised town in a country where attacks on military bases have been frequent and intense, guards must have been awake at checkpoints around the area.

If Pakistan did not detect the ingress of the helicopters into monitored airspace, then it surely became aware of the intrusion once these lowered to land and US forces employed automatic weapons and explosives.

Indeed, US officials noted that Pakistan scrambled its jets, and that the exiting US forces were fortunate to avoid these. 

This narrative is problematic. Even if we accept that Pakistan only scrambled aircraft once the raid was underway, the operation lasted 38 minutes. The Pakistan Air Force is a competent institution with functioning command and control systems. It therefore strains credulity to suppose that it took their fast jets, perhaps US-supplied F-16s, over half an hour to traverse the short distance from the nearest airbase. 

It may well be that a combination of deft radar-blocking, low-flying, and Pakistani incompetence permitted a genuinely unilateral operation. And it is highly likely that the US would not give meaningful advance notice to counterparts that had, in the past, been suspected of tipping off targets.

But it may also be the case that the Pakistani government, fearful of a nationalist backlash from an anti-American population, was given last-minute or concurrent notice of a major US operation; was ordered to leave US forces unmolested on pain of severe retaliation; and later cooperated with the White House to disseminate a narrative of Pakistan ignorance and indignation.

In mid-April, ISI chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha visited Washington for meetings with CIA counterparts. Stretching back to the Zia-ul-Haq administration in Pakistan and its cooperation with the Reagan White House, the two countries have been adept at (sometimes plausible) deniability in joint operations. [3]

This indicates, obviously, the intense mistrust that pervades the relationship. But, more importantly, it also shows the US' preference for some accommodation over outright confrontation with Pakistan.

Did Pakistan protect bin Laden?

Second, did Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment, and particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), knowingly harbour bin Laden?

Pakistan has had long-standing ties with groups that have, in turn, worked with Al-Qa'ida. The obvious example is the Afghan Taliban, which Pakistan nurtured and still assists. As late as late April, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen - who has in the past played down claims of Pakistani involvement with militancy - stated bluntly that 'it's fairly well known that the ISI has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network', an insurgent group active against Western forces in Afghanistan. It has been fashionable to refer to 'elements of the ISI', or to 'rogue agents', but these fictions have worn thinner with every passing year since 2001.

Moreover, the circumstantial evidence indicates that it would be nothing short of remarkable if Bin Laden's presence so close to a major military facility, and in such proximity to the capital, was not known to the Pakistan Army. General Kayani, the army chief, is also a former ISI chief.
A detainee from the raid, said to be bin Laden's wife, suggested that Bin Laden had lived at the sprawling compound - eight times the size of nearby houses, and with extraordinary security - since 2005. General Kayani visited the academy just last week. Pakistan claims it raided the house in 2003 as it was being built, but satellite imagery shows that construction only began a year later. 
It would require a fantastical interpretation of the facts to conclude this was incompetence rather than complicity, though the former cannot be conclusively disproven on the basis of what we know.
Unclear, though, is why Pakistan would shelter Bin Laden. As the 'war on terror' began, then Pakistani president General Musharraf handed over or killed large numbers of AQ militants. That gave Pakistan a freer hand to work with the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other such groups. Pakistan's relationship to militants has rarely been ideological or indiscriminate. It has been predicated on the usefulness of those groups in destabilising India or securing influence in Afghanistan.

Handing over Osama bin Laden would have given Pakistan even greater immunity from the chorus of criticism, thereby opening up greater space for engagement with more strategically valuable local groups.

Why did they not do so? One explanation might be that, by protecting Bin Laden, Pakistan was hoping to keep alive the rationale for the lucrative flow of US funds and military hardware. But this is an unsatisfying answer. Pakistan knew that the Afghan insurgency would continue regardless (as it will after today), and that Pakistani safe havens would guarantee its durability.

Moreover, Pakistan has been willing to use force to attack those groups deemed a threat to the state. The principal such group, the Pakistan Taliban (or TTP), enjoyed a working relationship with AQ, so there did exist incentives to degrade the latter's capabilities. [4] The threat of major retaliatory attacks is a moot point, since these were already taking place in large quantities.

Finally, it remains possible that, given the fortified nature of the residence and its proximity to the military site, that this was a form of house arrest, allowing the ISI to monitor bin Laden's activities and keep them in line with Pakistani strategic priorities (after all, Lashkar-e-Taiba has worked with AQ in the past - though, as mentioned, it has also worked with groups hostile to Islamabad).

Without further information, much will remain unclear about Pakistan's likely motivations.

Where does Pakistan go from here?

Third, and finally, what next? The US-Pakistan relationship will not dissolve. The White House, but also Downing Street, have been careful to praise Pakistan's role in enabling earlier intelligence gathering that culminated in this raid. As with past episodes in which Pakistan's dual policy has come under scrutiny, US officials are seeking to somewhat protect their Pakistani counterparts, partly from an increasingly angry Congress that has sent a billion dollars annually to Islamabad since 2001.

As long as the US retains such a large military footprint in Afghanistan, and as long as its forces there cannot be supplied through Iran or the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), it will not treat the ISI as it treats the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Syrian intelligence services.

Even if Bin Laden's death furnishes Obama with the political cover to begin a meaningful withdrawal, that would ease the supply constraint but simultaneously tighten the intelligence constraint - in that scenario, the US will deem it necessary to work with the ISI so as to enable whatever human intelligence it can collect, particularly in those areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan where the former will lack eyes and ears.

An emboldened CIA

However, the US has likely learnt a lesson that Pakistan would rather have remained unlearnt: that unilateralism may reap rewards. In 2006, ISI officials and the US Ambassador in Pakistan were required to sign off on drone strikes. Two years later, the CIA adhered to no such procedure, producing what it judged were good results.

Earlier this year, Pakistan arrested a CIA contractor in Lahore and refused him diplomatic immunity. Though the row was defused, it left both sides angered. Pakistan demanded that the US withdraw all undeclared intelligence officers (this, too, was likely a statement for domestic rather than American consumption).

But it is was precisely such undeclared personnel, operating independently from ISI counterparts, who played key roles in developing the mosaic of intelligence round Bin Laden's courier, eventually leading to the Abbotabad compound. This is a major success for US intelligence, and the CIA will aggressively exploit Pakistani embarrassment and its own enhanced stature to entrench its clandestine operations deep inside Pakistan.

In the months ahead, Islamabad will continue its narrative of ignorance; Washington, in turn, will continue to fictionalise Pakistan's sovereignty as it reaps the fruits of Operation Geronimo.


[1] See C. Christine Fair, "Leader-Led Jihad in Pakistan: Lashkar-e-Taiba and the 2008 Mumbai Attack", SSRN, October 2009,; Ashley J. Tellis, Bad Company - Lashkar e-Tayyiba and the Growing Ambition of Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, 2010, Carnegie Endowment,
[2] According to some reports, one or more helicopter was a Chinook.
[3] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin Press, 2004), pp.62-63
[4] Peter Bergen, Al Qaeda, the Organization: A Five-Year Forecast, The Annals of the American Academy of Politial and Social Science, July 2008, Vol. 618, No. 1, pp.14-30


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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