When I hear the statements by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta and US President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security adviser John Brennan over the alleged complicity on the part of Pakistan regarding the compound of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, I recalled a similar debate in the US as to how the CIA, with all the superior assets and financial resources at its disposal, failed to prevent attacks perpetrated by the 19 hijackers who wreaked havoc on US soil in September 2001.
Even the Pakistanis admit that it was a great embarrassment for the Pakistani security services, especially the leading intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to fail to discover the hideout of bin Laden. I’m sure it will lead to a major reassessment on ISI’s part. But going from intelligence failure to claiming that Pakistan was giving shelter to the most notorious terrorist is quite a stretch that has no basis in evidence and goes against the track record of Pakistan’s fight against terror.
First of all, there is simply no “motive” for Pakistan to extend any kind of assistance to bin Laden. What would they hope to gain from aiding and abetting a known criminal? Nothing whatsoever. Pakistan has been feeling the brunt of the bin Laden terror campaign for some time and trying its best to stem the radical ideology taking a root in its midst. The fact that threatening statements from the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership, whatever is left of them anyway, targeting the Pakistani government came after bin Laden’s demise dismiss any suggestion of complicity on the part of Pakistan.
Secondly, Pakistan has paid, and still pays, the price of US policy failures in Afghanistan. The power vacuum left by the abrupt withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan after the defeat of Soviet troops exacted a huge toll on Pakistan, be it through a surge of extremist ideology or waves of refugees into Pakistani territory. The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, giving a boost to its radical ideology, which later spilled over to Pakistan. It had eventually created what we call today the Pakistani Taliban. Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban movement, has more clout today in the region than Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had ever had.
We also have to remember how the US failed to capture bin Laden in battle in the mountainous Tora Bora region in 2001, during which time the Qaeda leader slipped into Pakistan. Former CIA officer Gary Berntsen, who led the CIA team in Afghanistan that was tasked with locating bin Laden, claimed in his 2005 book “Jawbreaker” that bin Laden could have been captured if US Central Command had committed the troops that Berntsen had requested.
At the time Pakistan was advising the US not to give any opening to al-Qaeda operatives who might disburse in other directions, especially towards Pakistan, through the mountainous region. The US did not listen to Pakistani concerns. Nevertheless the Pakistani armed forces were, for the first time, deployed in “Tirah Valley,” the mostly autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, to cordon the area off from fleeing al-Qaeda members. About 250 operatives were picked up by Pakistani forces during that operation.
Since then, most of the al-Qaeda captures were done by the ISI, either acting alone or jointly with the CIA. In fact, the discovery of bin Laden’s compound was done with intelligence shared by the ISI in the first place. The sprawling city of Abbottabad where bin Ladin lived until he was killed by US Special Forces first appeared on the radar when Faraz Libbi, the chief operative of al-Qaeda, was found in the city in 2004. His arrest triggered the intelligence community’s interest in the city. It was also the ISI that tipped the CIA on courier Al-Kuwaiti who eventually led the CIA to the discovery of the compound.
In January of this year, Pakistani security forces also captured explosives expert Umar Patek, one of the masterminds of the Bali bomb attacks in October 2002 that killed 202 people, in Abbottabad, a block down the road from bin Laden compound. The ISI also deserves credit for catching or killing most of the people mentioned in the CIA most wanted terrorists list. These include Ramzi Yousef, one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwait-born militant, who was alleged to be the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks; Abu Hamza Rabia, an Egyptian who was al-Qaeda’s third in command; Abu Faraj Libbi, al-Qaeda operations chief; Musaad Aruchi, a Pakistani courier who worked for al-Qaeda; Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian citizen who was currently held in US custody in Guantanamo Bay.
As President Asif Ali Zerdari quite rightly said in a piece published in The Washington Post last Monday, Pakistan is perhaps “the world’s greatest victim of terrorism,” with as many as 30,000 civilians having lost their lives. It is simply inconceivable that Pakistani intelligence could have alerted bin Laden if they knew about the covert operation in advance. There was simply no justifiable reason for that. On the other hand, one may argue that Obama wanted to claim sole credit on the eve of upcoming presidential elections to be held next year and boost his national security credentials. The US incursion may very well have resulted in a confrontation with the Pakistani armed forces simply because the latter did not know who was aboard those choppers. Thankfully it did not come to that.
The US simply exploited the weaknesses of the Pakistani security apparatus on the western border while the main threat assessment dictated the concentration of Pakistani defense capabilities, including comprehensive radar coverage, was on the Indian front on the eastern border. Coupled with that, the war on terror originating from both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups had the Pakistani intelligence community overstretched to the limit. The country was also hit with economic challenges, manmade or natural, while the lack of financial resources and technical expertise has exacerbated the situation for security services as well.
I also need to underline that Pakistan is increasingly alarmed that the Pakistani Taliban has been getting support in financial aid and arms not only from the Afghan Taliban but also from Indian intelligence services using Afghan proxies to de-stabilize Pakistan. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to the questionable activity of Indian agents operating in the so-called “Indian information centers,” organized under development and reconstruction schemes. Coming under “crossfire” from both western and eastern borders is simply not an acceptable development from the Pakistani national security perspective.
The problem is too complicated with lots of gray areas under which many nations operate. It surely requires a multi-national response to address challenges posed by the Taliban, for example. But that must be done without overlooking Pakistan’s legitimate concerns, some of which, in their eyes, amounts to an existential threat to the viability of Pakistan.