In Pakistan, bewilderment

May 6, 2011

Cyril Almeida at Dawn has written a powerful and anguished column about the bewilderment among many Pakistanis on discovering that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in Abbottabad, a garrison town in the heart of the country and home to the Pakistan Military Academy.

“It’s too frightening to make sense of. The world’s most-wanted terrorist. A man who triggered the longest war in American history. The terrorist mastermind the world’s only superpower has moved heaven and earth to track down. A decade of hunting. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent. The blood of countless Americans and others spilled. And when he was finally found, he was found wrapped in the bosom of the Pakistani security establishment.”

“Did they know he was here? Surely, they knew he was here? Nobody has come out and said it openly yet. It’s too early, the story still unfolding. Ask the question in private, though, and with hand on heart, no one will say anything but, yes, they knew he was there,” he wrote.  “Grim questions are etched on anxious faces, but so is fear of the answers. Proud men and women, people who love and serve their country, have cried as they connect yet another dot in the horrifying trajectory this country is on.”

The mixed messages given out in public or private after President Barack Obama announced on Monday that U.S. forces had flown unnoticed deep into  Pakistan and killed bin Laden, have left many dazed about what really happened. Had Pakistan at least helped in some way by providing the intelligence that  led to bin Laden? President Barack Obama had specifically mentioned counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan.  Or did Pakistanis have to face up to the possibility that the Americans had acted entirely alone — hoodwinking the country’s powerful army — and that perhaps, as Almeida writes, “they knew he was there”.

A government statement said that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency ”had been sharing information with CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009″ about the compound where bin Laden was killed. But that statement, described by columnist Ejaz Haider as “nonsense at its most nonsensical” was even more confusing — if the ISI knew about the compound in 2009, why did it not take action?

Towards the end of the week, the “authorised” version of events filtered out from a briefing given by Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to senior Pakistani journalists.

Pakistan had not known in advance about the U.S. plans, but nor had it known that bin Laden was there, wrote Time magazine’s Omar Waraich, who had spoken to some of those present at the briefing. “Kayani was adamant that the Pakistanis had no idea that bin-Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. “We had no clear, actionable information on Osama bin-Laden,” he told the journalists. “If we had it, we would have acted ourselves. No one would have questioned our performance for ten years. It would have raised our international prestige.”

Najam Sethi at The Friday Times in his account of what appeared to be the same briefing, gave the first properly coherent explanation of how the United States and Pakistan had managed to square the circle of saying they had shared intelligence while acting alone.   It’s worth quoting at length, since in the weeks and months ahead, this is likely to be the story that will have to survive scrutiny if the two countries are to carry on working together — something both countries need to do in their own interests, irrespective of the distrust.

“Sometime in 2009, an ISI wiretap picked up a conversation in Arabic between a Sim card in Nowshera and another in Saudi Arabia. The conversation was brief and hinted at financial matters. This transcript was passed on to the CIA for processing. Three months later, in 2010, the same Sim woke up to another conversation in Arabic, this time from Peshawar to Saudi Arabia. Again, the transcript was passed on to the CIA. There were four other occasions that year when the same Sim was used, once from a location in Waziristan and the last one actually from the compound in Abbotabad, and all the transcripts and location details were passed on to the CIA. The ISI took the view that its Intel apparatus was focused on the Pashto or Punjabi speaking Taliban in FATA and elsewhere in the country and Arabic speaking Al-Qaeda terrorists were the responsibility of the CIA.

“Meanwhile, the CIA analysed the transcripts and followed all the clues until the last one led them to the compound in Abbotabad. When the CIA homed in on it in February via ground and satellite surveillance in 2011, it was convinced that a very high value target was living in it, possibly OBL. They found it unbelievable because of its location in the military’s backyard. The consensus view was that an exclusive and secret operation should be launched to get their man because the ISI couldn’t be trusted with a joint operation. The CIA just wasn’t sure whether the ISI was hiding OBL because it was the ISI that had provided the lead to the Sim card and transcripts that led the CIA to the compound in Abbotabad.

“This explains two statements made by senior US officials. President Obama said the operation benefited from “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan’s Intel agencies that led the CIA to the compound in which OBL was living”. The CIA chief said they couldn’t mount a joint operation because they didn’t want leaks in the ISI by rogue elements to jeopardize it.”

The explanation has an internal coherence and brings together the U.S. and Pakistani narratives that they had shared intelligence, even as the United States later acted alone.  It does not begin to give all the answers, but it does provide some useful details to work on.

 In 2010, for example, the ISI, according to this explanation, picked up a conversation in Arabic from a particular SIM card.  That same SIM card was used “once from a location in Waziristan and the last one actually from the compound in Abbottabad”.  It’s terribly easy to criticise other people’s mistakes in hindsight, but what would you conclude if you had a link between an Arabic speaker, Waziristan, and the compound?  Leave it to the CIA?

Or was this a question of an overworked junior officer failing to join the dots? With every new explanation we get, more questions need to be asked.

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