Perspectives on Pakistan
U.S.-Pakistan and the phone calls after the bin Laden raid
Let’s start with President Barack Obama’s speech on May 1 (May 2 in Pakistan) when he announced that bin Laden had been killed in the town of Abbottabad (note the diplomatic finesse in his suggestion that President Asif Ali Zardari was the first to be informed, as would normally be the case in relations between two countries.)
“Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Here is a reconstruction of events, as described by senior Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi and written after Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha (DG-ISI), the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, held a special briefing last week for a select group of senior journalists.
“Shortly after reports of a helicopter mishap in Abbotabad hit the media around 1.20 am, not so far away in Rawalpindi, the DG-ISI (Pasha) was woken up by a phone call about a crashed helicopter. He called his people to ask: ‘Is it ours?’ After a brief check, he was told, ‘no sir, it’s not ours’. He called up DG-MO. (Director General of Military Operations) ‘Is it yours?’ After a brief check he was told, ‘no sir, it’s not ours’. He called up his boys and told them to rush to the scene of the incident. He also called up the COAS (Chief of Army Staff) General Kayani to brief him.
“The COAS called up the top military man in Abbotabad who ordered forces to rush to the area. The COAS also called up the PAF (Pakistan Air Force) Air Chief. The Air Chief checked, explained that radar hadn’t picked up any intruders, and ordered two F-16s to scramble. When the ISI team arrived at the compound, they reported the burning wreckage of the chopper and the markings on its fin. They reported three dead men and one woman. They reported a wounded woman who spoke Arabic and halting English, and two other women who were unharmed. They noted there were sixteen children aged six to eight years approximately. The woman said she was OBL’s wife, along with two other women, and confirmed that OBL and his family had been living in the compound for six years. She said the Americans had attacked them, killed OBL and taken his corpse. Soon thereafter, the army arrived to seal off the area and whisk away the occupants and dead bodies in the compound.
“Around 3 am, Admiral Mullen called General Kayani, and CIA chief, Leon Panetta, called DG-ISI, General Pasha. They explained the nature of the operation and why it had been kept a secret from them. President Obama called President Zardari at 7 am to acquaint him with the facts.”
According to this version then, there was a full four-hour gap between the United States officially informing the Pakistan Army that it had just conducted a raid on its territory, and informing the head of state. It also leaves a lingering impression that the president remained asleep after Pasha ordered “his boys” to rush round to the compound when bin Laden was killed to find out what happened.
Here is the version given by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in an interview with Omar Waraich at Time magazine:
“The Prime Minister said he was first alerted to the raid by a 2 a.m. call from Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Gilani then called his Foreign Secretary and asked him to demand an explanation from U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter.”
So did Gilani then call Zardari? And what did the U.S. ambassador tell the foreign secretary? Did they speak before, or after Obama officially informed Pakistan’s president about the raid?
Here is another version, in a report in The Express Tribune giving a reconstructed account of what Pasha said in an in-camera briefing on Friday to a special joint sitting of parliament, held at Kayani’s suggestion.
“Though Pasha was careful not to blame the civilian leadership of anything, his question was, in essence, directed to the entire leadership of the country: If the top leadership was informed of the operation after it was over at just past 2 am on May 2, as the ISI chief said in his briefing – why wasn’t any sort of emergency meeting called?
“The parliament was informed by Lt Gen Pasha that he had informed Army Chief General Kayani at 2.05am about the American operation – who, in turn, made a telephone call to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and then to the President Zardari. Gilani was said to have then called up the foreign secretary. But there was nothing other than that. Why didn’t the Troika – the President, Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff – meet urgently, and discuss a possible response? Why did the leadership wait for a call from US President Barack Obama at 7 am – five hours after the operation was brought into their knowledge?”
There may be other versions out there, in which case, do please post the links in the comments section. They are not in themselves contradictory. Pasha found out first and called his boss, General Kayani. The army chief phoned the prime minister and possibly the president. The Americans — if these accounts are correct — appear to have told their counterparts in the military long before they informed the civilian leadership of Pakistan.
You might argue these are details in the grand scheme of things. But these phone calls do tell us quite a lot about the way power is distributed in Pakistan.
Perhaps most significantly, they give a clue as to how the United States views that distribution of power. Washington has professed to support democracy in Pakistan. Yet by most accounts, the civilian leadership was not only totally caught off-guard by the U.S. raid, but was completely dependent on the military and the ISI to tell them afterwards what had happened.
In the chaotic aftermath which followed bin Laden’s killing, the civilian government missed an opportunity to assert its authority over the military, which dominates foreign and security policy. If the United States had really wanted to bolster the civilian government, why did it leave it flailing? An oversight? A question of old habits dying hard? A matter of practical convenience? Or an indication that in Washington’s decades-long preference for dealing directly with the military in Pakistan, nothing has really changed?
(Update: Thanks to @AfghanPolicy for pointing out on Twitter that Obama’s speech was on May 1; the events in Pakistan all took place on May 2. Have added parenthesis making this clear above.)
(Another update via @Saba_Imtiaz – Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir said Admiral Mullen called Kayani around 3 am. ”Arranging that call also took some time because they need to get a secure line and it gets time to do so,” he said. ”Subsequently President Obama telephoned our President…” Meanwhile, according to Time magazine’s report on the briefing for senior Pakistani journalists, Kayani said the first communication from the United States was a phone call at around 5 a.m.)
(And finally, from the New York Times (italics are mine) : American officials say they believe the top leaders of the country were genuinely surprised about bin Laden’s whereabouts, based on their reaction to phone calls from the administration on the night of the raid and electronic surveillance of Pakistani government communications.)