Published May 2, 2021
Composite illustration by Samiah Bilal
Composite illustration by Samiah Bilal

American President Biden’s announcement that the US will finally pull its military out of Afghanistan after 20 years has thrust the issue of the region’s future back into the spotlight. Journalist Zahid Hussain’s recently published No-Win War presents a meticulously researched account of the war against the Taliban and its impact on US-Pak relations. A decade after the May 2011 Abbottabad raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Eos brings to you an exclusive excerpt from the book, featuring what went on behind the scenes

May 1, 2011

It was early summer in Islamabad. At the US ambassador’s residence, the conversation late evening at the dining table revolved around politics and US-Pak relations. Ambassador Cameron Munter had arrived in Pakistan less than a year ago to take over, perhaps, the toughest assignment of his diplomatic career. His first few months in the job were spent in dealing with the [Raymond] Davis incident and its fallout.

An official walked into the room interrupting the conversation, handing a note to the ambassador. “Washington doesn’t seem to have any understanding about the time difference,” smiled Cameron. “I will be back in ten minutes,” he said, as he got up to leave to receive a call in the secure room at the embassy.

Marilyn Wyatt, the ambassador’s wife, played host for the rest of the evening. The ambassador returned after almost 90 minutes, as the guests were leaving. He looked worried and lost. Whatever he was told by his bosses in Washington seemed to have troubled Munter. As midnight approached, he returned to the secure room, along with the CIA station chief, to watch live transmissions from a stealth drone circling over Abbottabad, as the Osama bin Laden raid began.

Four US helicopters — two stealth Black Hawks and two Chinooks — entered Pakistani airspace at approximately 11:20 p.m., in the vicinity of Ghursal and Shilman in the mountainous northern Khyber tribal area. Flying low and fast, they were able to evade Pakistani low-altitude radar deployments, which were limited in number on the western border since they were on ‘peacetime deployment.’

The helicopters dropped US Navy SEALs inside Osama bin Laden’s suspected compound at approximately 12:30 a.m. They spent just under 40 minutes carrying out operations. At 1:06 a.m., they blew up a downed stealth helicopter and began their return trip to a US airbase in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, with bin Laden’s body on board. The last US helicopter was estimated to have left Pakistani airspace at 2:26 a.m.

[Chief of Army Staff] Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was in his study in his official residence in Rawalpindi when, at 2:27 a.m. on May 2, he received a call from the Director General of Military Operations, Maj Gen Ishfaq Nadeem, who informed him that a helicopter had crashed in Abbottabad, the home of Pakistan’s [Kakul] military academy. He was also told about other helicopters having landed there and then flying away.

Gen Kayani reached two quick conclusions: the chopper wasn’t Pakistani because Pakistani helicopters rarely fly at night; therefore, it must be a foreign incursion that breached the country’s air defenses. His major and immediate concern was for the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear facility, located a few miles from Abbottabad. He called Air Chief Marshal, Rao Qamar Suleman, the head of the air force, and told him that Pakistan’s airspace had been violated, and asked him to “shoot down the intruding helicopters.”

But it was not to be. Intriguingly, F-16 fighter jets and support aircraft were not scrambled for a further 43 minutes — then 24 minutes after US forces had left Pakistani airspace, and more than three and a half hours since the incursion first began. By then, the US helicopters were already well out of Pakistani airspace. The Air Chief didn’t have a clear answer for the delay. He blamed “unpreparedness of the air force on the western borders”, and how the PAF was not meant to engage with the US on the western border.

Gen Kayani called Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani around 3 a.m., to inform him about the intrusion and asked him to contact the US ambassador to enquire what was happening. He gave the same message to Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir. There was a complete panic situation as it was still not clear what had really happened. Munter was unavailable on the phone. Gen Kayani then waited a further hour and 45 minutes to make his final phone call of the morning, at 6:45 a.m., to President Asif Ali Zardari, who was also supreme commander.

An hour later, Gen Kayani received a call on a secure line from his US counterpart, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the news that a team of Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and returned to Afghanistan. Stunned by the news, Gen Kayani paused before responding to Mullen; “Congratulations on the good news,” he said, taking a deep breath.

There was no bitterness or anger in his tone. He didn’t even protest over the raid deep inside Pakistan’s territory. He didn’t tell Admiral Mullen the operation was ‘unacceptable.’ Instead, he requested Mullen that Pakistan’s cooperation must also be acknowledged. Mullen promised that President Barack Obama would handle the issue of the raid in an appropriately measured way. The conversation ended on a pleasant note.

Almost at the same time, President Zardari received a phone call from President Obama, who informed his Pakistani counterpart that the US forces had killed bin Laden in a raid inside Pakistani territory.

“Congratulations Mr. President,” a stunned and half-awake Zardari responded. He too didn’t raise the sovereignty issue. He was genuinely pleased by the news without thinking about the fallout. Shortly after, [Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) head, Lt] Gen Pasha received a similar call from Leon Panetta, chief of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Meanwhile, the residents of Bilal Town, a prosperous middle-class neighbourhood, adjacent to the military academy, were woken up by the sound of helicopters flying low and then a loud explosion. Peeping from their windows, they saw some figures moving in the dark around a double-storey house a couple of hundred meters away.

No one came out as they had earlier been warned, presumably by security officials on duty. “Stay home,” someone shouted in Urdu. Pupils at a madressah on the edge of the colony witnessed the landing of two helicopters from the roof of their building and just assumed it was Pakistani security forces conducting some operation.

Maj Amir Aziz, a serving army officer, lived just a few hundred metres away from the compound known as Waziristan House. Many times the size of other homes in the neighbourhood and separated from the other houses by a corn field, the compound had high barbed-wire fences and two security gates. Maj Aziz’s family often wondered who lived in the compound, although they had not noticed any unusual activity there; occasionally someone would be seen coming out.

The major was woken up by the sound of helicopters flying very low. He saw a Chinook landing inside the compound and a Black Hawk landing outside in the field. He witnessed the soldiers in camouflaged uniforms descending at the top of the house from a helicopter still in the air. He also saw one Blackhawk helicopter crashing inside the compound. The explosion he heard was caused by the demolition of that helicopter.

He called his unit commander, a brigadier, to inform him what was happening. But he was apparently told to stay put and not to approach the compound. Later, the entire episode involving the major and the brigade commander raised many questions. Troops reached the scene an hour after the helicopters had left. No one had any idea what was going on.

Pakistani security officials who were the first to enter the compound found the helicopter wreckage, a house filled with corpses, and several frightened women and children crying hysterically. One of the surviving women, who had been shot in the leg, identified herself as Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, a 29-year-old Yemeni and bin Laden’s youngest wife. It was then that the officials realised what had happened.

There was more of a feeling of embarrassment than of anger. The discussion mainly revolved around how to explain the episode to the nation. While the president and the prime minister appeared relaxed, Gen Kayani and Gen Pasha looked tense.

Hours later, on the morning of May 2, Gen Kayani and Gen Pasha arrived at the President House for an emergency meeting of the civil and military leadership to discuss Pakistan’s response to the US raid and, more importantly, the embarrassing presence of bin Laden. The atmosphere in the conference room was grim. Besides President Zardari and Prime Minister Gillani, the newly appointed foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and the foreign secretary were also present in the meeting.

There was more of a feeling of embarrassment than of anger. The discussion mainly revolved around how to explain the episode to the nation. While the president and the prime minister appeared relaxed, Gen Kayani and Gen Pasha looked tense. It was extremely difficult for them to explain how the world’s most-hunted man was living right in the heart of an army garrison town.

A major question was whether it was an intelligence failure that made it possible for Osama bin Laden and his entourage to live undetected for more than six years a stone’s throw from the military academy, or was there any complicity? It was a testing time for the military leadership. They were in the eye of the storm.

Only a month earlier, Gen Kayani had assured the newly commissioned officers at the military academy in the town where bin Laden had found sanctuary, that the back of Al Qaeda-supported terrorists had been broken. A major worry for him now was how his officers would react to the US action inside Pakistan’s territory. It was an extremely difficult situation for the military leadership: at best, it looked totally incompetent and, at worst, completely complicit.

Curiously, there was hardly any discussion at the presidency on the breach of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty by the US forces. In fact, there was a complete consensus on downplaying the US raid and to encourage a perception of Pakistan’s close cooperation in tracking down bin Laden. President Obama’s acknowledgement of Pakistan’s cooperation provided some relief to the Pakistani leadership.

In his address to the nation the same morning, President Obama commended Pakistan’s counterterrorism cooperation that helped “lead us to bin Laden and his compound where he was hiding. Bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.” He also pointed out that, in their conversation, the Pakistani leaders agreed that “this is a good and historic day for both of our nations.”

Still, it was not possible for the Pakistani leadership to publicly condone the US action, as they might have done in their private conversations with the American officials. This predicament was illustrated in the cautious phrasing of the statement issued after the May 2 meeting by the foreign ministry.

It was a classic example of playing both sides of the occurrence. While reminding the world of Pakistan’s contribution and commitment to fighting Al Qaeda and its history of counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, it distanced itself from the US action. The statement did not explicitly praise the sting operation, nor did it condemn it: “Osama bin Laden’s death illustrates the resolve of the international community, including Pakistan, to fight and eliminate terrorism. It constitutes a major setback to terrorist organisations around the world,” read the statement.

In fact, the statement implicitly validated the unilateral US military action, noting that it was “in accordance with declared US policy that Osama bin Laden will be eliminated in a direct action by the US forces, wherever found in the world.” In order to shield itself from the public outrage over the breach of sovereignty, the statement implied that Zardari and military leaders did not have any prior information about the US raid.

In his op-ed column in The Washington Post published on the same date, President Zardari went further, expressing satisfaction that “the source of the greatest evil of the new millennium has been silenced, and his victims given justice.” While conceding that the May 2 raid was not a joint operation, he reiterated that it was “a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan that led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden.” He also endorsed the words of President Obama and appreciated the credit he gave Pakistan for the successful operation. There was no mention of the sovereignty issue.

A timeline of the Abbottabad raid, based on US sources | AFP
A timeline of the Abbottabad raid, based on US sources | AFP

President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, held talks with PM Gillani just hours after bin Laden’s death. In a statement after the meeting, Gillani said he had expressed “the need for constructive and positive messaging from both sides,” on the operation to kill bin Laden and the avoidance of “spin.”

But the tenor started changing and got tougher when US officials and some lawmakers raised questions about whether or not the Pakistani military and ISI had protected bin Laden. The Al Qaeda leader was found not in a remote border hideout, but in a mansion in a garrison city, about 40 miles from the country’s capital. US officials were not willing to accept that bin Laden lived there without support from within Pakistan.

While the White House tried to play down any suspicion about the role of Pakistani intelligence agencies in protecting the Al Qaeda chief, some other officials were extremely sceptical. President Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, said the US would pursue all leads to find out “exactly what type of support system and benefactors bin Laden might have had.” In an interview, CIA Director Leon Panetta stated that US officials did not alert Pakistani counterparts to the raid because they feared the terrorist leader would be warned.

The initial shock and humiliation caused by the US incursion had turned into anger within Pakistan’s military ranks. The killing of bin Laden marked an epic victory for US forces. But for Pakistan’s military, it meant national humiliation. Anti-US sentiments were already high following the Davis incident and now there was widespread scepticism about the official explanation on the Abbottabad raid. There were also questions about how bin Laden could have been staying undetected in a high security zone.

His commanders put Gen Kayani on the mat. What angered the generals most was that the US didn’t share information about the raid with Pakistani security officials until after it was over. Gen Kayani almost cried: “They could have done it jointly with us in the daylight,” he told a retired general.

US reaction to the Pakistani statement was muted. American officials said they understood Gen Kayani needed ‘breathing space’ to get his own people back on his side.

It was extremely tough for Gen Kayani and Gen Pasha to come up with a plausible defence of the failure to find bin Laden and their inability to detect the presence of foreign forces during the course of the raid. In light of the country’s defence policy, the US was not considered a threat, and the violation of its airspace and territory on May 1, 2011, was therefore considered a ‘betrayal.’

There was apparently no ‘response capability’ on the western border, although one was in place on the eastern borders with India. [The commanders] were certainly not satisfied with Gen Kayani’s explanation that the US helicopters could not be intercepted because the radars on the western border were not operative.

In an attempt to rally his troops, Gen Kayani went from garrison to garrison to explain that he shared their sense of humiliation over the raid but that it was not prudent to sever ties with the US; “I felt betrayed by the US military action, as I have been involved deeply in developing strategic relations with the United States,” he told senior field officers at Islamabad’s National Defense University (NDU) a few days later.

Officers, one after the other, bombarded him with questions about the US raid and the future of Pakistan’s relations with the US, for more than three hours, and Gen Kayani sat there answering their questions. After the speech, a colonel in attendance pointedly asked: “How can we trust the United States?”

Chain-smoking, the general kept his cool but clearly looked stressed out. “My feelings would be the same as yours if another such incident happened. We will not hesitate then to curtail all intelligence and military cooperation with the US.” The assurance did not seem to appease the several dozen mid-level officers completing their war course at the NDU. While admitting intelligence failure, Gen Kayani confirmed that he had ordered an investigation.

Within days, Pakistan’s response had changed to reflect the military’s outrage. At a meeting at the President House, Gen Kayani handed over a written statement to Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir. “It should be released immediately,” the army chief told him. Bashir took out his pen and tried to make some changes. But Zardari interrupted him. “Let it go as it is,” he told Bashir.

Hours later, the foreign secretary in a news conference warned of “disastrous consequences” should the US or any other country — such as archrival India — attempt a similar raid. “No self-respecting nation would compromise or allow others to compromise its sovereignty,” stated Bashir, reiterating, “We want to make it absolutely clear to everyone — do not underestimate Pakistan’s capabilities and capacity to do what is necessary for national security.”

It was the ISI chief who was in the eye of the storm for his organisation’s failure to nab bin Laden or to anticipate the US raid. Gen Pasha was under intense pressure to accept responsibility for the lapse, amid calls for his resignation. Under his command, the ISI had expanded its relationship with the CIA, increasing cooperation on drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan. Yet, the ISI chief had also stood up to the US whenever there was a clash or a disagreement over a particular course of action.

It was, therefore, an extremely humiliating experience for the ISI chief to be grilled for several hours by legislators at a joint session of Parliament. Gen Kayani sat next to him, smoking nervously, as opposition members demanded that someone at the top must resign and some heads must roll. It was indicative of the deep crisis in national confidence brought on by the Abbottabad raid.

In an effort to pacify the public outrage, the government announced its intention to launch an investigation into intelligence failures surrounding bin Laden’s discovery by the US and killing by foreign forces. There was already an increasing pressure on the civil and military [establishment] to scale back Pakistan’s cooperation with the CIA.

As the generals needed a scapegoat to blame, both for not knowing about the US incursion and for not detecting the presence of bin Laden, Gen Pasha offered to resign. But Gen Kayani rejected it, as he knew that the buck would not stop there.

He had received an extension for another three-year term just a few months ago, evoking resentment among senior officers. His authority had further diminished after the May 2 incident. The opposition politicians joined the protest, spurring public disenchantment with the military.

As domestic political pressure escalated, the military issued a rare defensive response to calm down the critics. In an attempt to pacify the soldiers who openly questioned the rationale for Pakistan’s tight military embrace with the US, Gen Kayani promised to reduce the military’s reliance on US military aid and training.

He ordered strict limits on US intelligence operations within the country. A long statement — at various points apologetic, belligerent and strident — was the clearest indication that Pakistan’s military leaders were under immense pressure to assuage their own people, even if that meant scaling back ties to the US.

The statement manifested the crisis that had gripped Pakistan’s military. It said the army had “drastically cut” the number of US troops stationed in Pakistan and ended US training of Pakistani soldiers. Gen Kayani also told commanders that US military aid for Pakistan should be diverted to help the economy, signalling that he no longer viewed it as essential. Pakistan said it received $8.6 billion in US military assistance in the past decade through the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) programme, meant to reimburse the country for money spent fighting terrorism.

This also sent a clear signal that the military was reconsidering its options for expanded cooperation with the US in the fight against militants. Gen Kayani told his commanders that Pakistan wouldn’t be pressured to agree to a timetable to attack North Waziristan that was seen as the epicentre of militancy, threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The tribal region was home to the Haqqani network — the most lethal of the Taliban factions responsible for attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.

Gen Kayani also declared that US drone strikes in the tribal areas “were not acceptable under any circumstances.” Pakistan had always publicly condemned the programme, while privately acquiescing and, at times, assisting it. Gen Kayani had faced widespread criticism among his ranks for letting the drone strikes continue.

There was a serious concern that the anger over the bin Laden incident could run through the lower-ranking soldiers, making them amenable to the anti-US campaign launched by radical Islamic groups. One group, Hizbut Tahrir, clandestinely dropped pamphlets in military cantonments after the bin Laden raid, calling for officers to revolt against the military leadership and establish an Islamic caliphate.

“It is a slap in the respected officers’ faces that on May 2 American helicopters intruded in the dark of night and barged into a house like thieves,” the pamphlet read. It added: “It could not have been possible without the acquiescence of your high officials.”

Predictably, the report has ruled out complicity of any state institution in harbouring the Al Qaeda leader. Certainly there is no evidence of that. But then, who provided Bin Laden protection and logistics support?

It was obvious that men within the ranks distributed the pamphlets. The group, though outlawed, had made inroads into the security institutions. A brigadier and a few other officers were arrested for their affiliation with the group and were court-martialled.

US reaction to the Pakistani statement was muted. American officials said they understood Gen Kayani needed ‘breathing space’ to get his own people back on his side. “The government has been in a difficult spot domestically since the bin Laden raid, and the Pakistani military is probably trying to re-establish some of the credibility it perceived it lost,” said a US official in Washington.

In the eyes of the US, Gen Kayani was still a reliable ally and it was not in the Obama administration’s interest to add to his woes. For the past four years, the US had diligently courted him, despite huge reservations about the military’s refusal to take action against the Taliban leadership operating from Pakistan, particularly the Haqqani network.

In this picture taken in February 2021, children play cricket at the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in northern Abbottabad | AFP
In this picture taken in February 2021, children play cricket at the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in northern Abbottabad | AFP

With a widening trust deficit between Islamabad and Washington, the CIA had built its own clandestine network to track down Osama bin Laden, bypassing the ISI. In fact, the CIA had stopped sharing any information with its Pakistani counterparts about the bin Laden investigation since 2005. During President Obama’s tenure, there was a growing suspicion in his administration that elements in the Pakistani security agency might be protecting the Al Qaeda leader.

During her visit to Islamabad in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: “I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda is.” Her comments were indicative of difficult relations between the two countries and evoked a strong reaction from Pakistani authorities.

The question of how or whether bin Laden eluded the view of Pakistan’s military intelligence remained unanswered. It was just too much of a coincidence that bin Laden would be hiding in a neighborhood close to the military academy, inhabited by retired and serving military officers. Either the ISI knew about his presence there, or it was a complete intelligence failure.

Gen Pasha claimed that the initial tip-off of the courier was provided by the ISI. According to him, the agency had shared information about an intercepted phone call made to Kuwait to the CIA and some intelligence agencies of the Gulf countries. But the ISI never received any information about the follow-up investigations. While the ISI had provided the CIA some information on the courier, it may not have realised its significance.

There was yet another theory, that the top military brass had prior information of the raid. That suspicion was reinforced by Pakistan’s initial response, approving the killing of bin Laden. Intriguingly enough, the ISI had been actively pursuing Al Qaeda operatives in the vicinity around Abbottabad for some time.

Just weeks before the US raid, the ISI had captured Umar Patek, one of the masterminds of the 2002 Bali bombing, in which more than 200 people were killed, from an area not far from bin Laden’s compound. He had come to Pakistan, along with his Filipino wife, to meet the Al Qaeda leader. But he was nabbed before he could reach his leader.

A few years earlier, Pakistani security agencies raided a compound in Abbottabad for Faraj al Libbi, considered number three in the Al Qaeda leadership hierarchy. He was also believed to have been in contact with bin Laden. He escaped but was later captured in Mardan, less than 100 miles from Abbottabad. According to Maj Amir Aziz, a serving army officer and a neighbour, ISI operatives once came to the bin Laden compound too. The ISI’s denial of the claim was not very convincing.

The CIA had been operating a network in the area after receiving initial intelligence of bin Laden’s possible presence in the garrison town. Some Pakistanis, including serving and retired army officers, were recruited for the hunt of the Al Qaeda leader. A USAID office in the city was also used as a cover for the operatives. The Abbottabad Commission report has shed light on the top security officials who could have helped the CIA in tracking down bin Laden.

Lt Col Iqbal, a former ISI officer, was a critical cog in the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden. Thrown out from the army on ‘disciplinary grounds’, he ran a private security firm that was mainly staffed by former ISI officers. He would often visit Maj Amir and take photographs of the bin Laden compound. His wealth had grown astronomically over the years. He drove a million dollar bulletproof and noise-controlled vehicle.

For a retired, mid-level army officer, this kind of wealth was inconceivable. His son, who was also in the army, had served as ADC to former military ruler Gen Musharraf. Col Iqbal was the person who tipped off the CIA about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He disappeared the day after the US raid. His profile, according to Lt Gen Pasha, “matched that of a likely CIA recruit.” Colonel Iqbal is now residing in California.

Equally curious was the role of Maj Amir, who was bin Laden’s closest neighbour and hosted Col Iqbal. It was not a coincidence that the former ISI officer landed at his house. The major had been living there for many years. It was strange, because it’s rare for a serving officer to be posted at one place for that long.

He was the main witness of the US operation, although his initial statement, that he was told by his CO [commanding officer] not to go out, made him seem somewhat dubious. He was reluctant to appear before the Abbottabad Commission investigating the raid. The ISI chief denied the two had played any role in bin Laden’s case. But was Maj Amir deputed by the ISI to keep a watch on bin Laden?

Another key member of the CIA network was Dr Shakeel Afridi. He was the only one whose service in the hunt for bin Laden was recognised publicly by US officials. A doctor and health official in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, he headed up a polio vaccination campaign in the suburb where bin Laden’s suspected compound was located.

It turns out that the programme was no ordinary public health initiative. It was a CIA operation designed to confirm bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad by collecting DNA from one of his family members. He was arrested almost a week after the killing of bin Laden.

A judicial commission recommended trying him for treason. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2012 — surprisingly, not for his CIA link but rather for a ransom payment made on his behalf to the Lashkar-e-Islam militant group, which had abducted Afridi in 2008. Pakistan said it constituted financial support for a terrorist group.

It’s unclear whether Afridi and his health workers collected any DNA from the bin Ladens or how much he actually knew about the purpose of the vaccination programme, or about his handlers, or about the target of the intelligence gathering. Regardless of what Afridi did or didn’t know, US officials have talked about him as though he were a key asset in the hunt for bin Laden.

Former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was Director CIA when the bin Laden raid took place, confirmed during a 60 Minutes interview in January 2012 that Afridi had worked for the CIA.

While CIA recruits were looking into bin Laden’s whereabouts, the ISI had ‘closed the file’ on Osama bin Laden after the CIA reportedly stopped sharing information on the hunt for the Al Qaeda chief in 2005. This was despite the fact that bin Laden had released an audio recording as late as January 2011, whose authenticity was verified through voice analysis. According to ISI assessments, bin Laden was either dead or inactive, and the lack of intelligence sharing from CIA was seen as indicative that this was the US view as well.

Interestingly, Gen Kayani was holding a series of meetings with the top US military commanders weeks and days before the Abbottabad raid. He met with CENTCOM chief, Gen James Mattis, on April 8, followed by the visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, on April 20, and US commander for Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, on April 26. That shows very close coordination between the two militaries at the top level, despite a widening trust deficit between them.

The government tried to bring closure to the issue by ordering an internal (military) enquiry into how bin Laden managed to hide in Pakistan so long. The one-man Pakistani Army Board of Inquiry was headed by Lt Gen Javed Iqbal, a close aide to Gen Kayani.

The report concluded that the Al Qaeda chief was able to escape detection in Abbottabad “due to the phased construction and occupation of the compound, the extremely low profile that was maintained.” The report was seen as a blatant attempt to cover up the scandal.

Curiously enough, a few years later, Gen Javed Iqbal was court-martialled for spying for the United States and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. The general was responsible for military operations, one of the most critical positions in the country’s defence system, until a few months before the Abbottabad raid, lending a new and interesting twist to the bin Laden enquiry.

Meanwhile, another judicial commission, known as the Abbottabad Commission, was set up to “ascertain full facts regarding the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.” The report was submitted to the government in 2013 but it was never made public. But a leaked copy of the report showed a scathing indictment of the security agencies for their failure to detect bin Laden.

The report rightly observed that May 2 was the blackest day for Pakistan. This applies to not only the US military raid, but also to the humiliation of being caught hosting the world’s most wanted militant. Yet, the latter fact seemed to have been buried under strong rhetoric and clichés about national sovereignty.

Predictably, the report has ruled out complicity of any state institution in harbouring the Al Qaeda leader. Certainly there is no evidence of that. But then, who provided Bin Laden protection and logistics support?

It could not have been possible for a fugitive with a $25 million bounty on his head to cross into Pakistan and safely shelter without a strong support base within the country.

During the time he hid in Pakistan, Bin Laden and his family travelled to many places. He is said to have stayed in Waziristan, Bajaur, Swat and Haripur, before settling in Abbottabad. His wives and children also lived in Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar. For all that, they must have had the support of a dedicated and ideologically committed group looking after the logistics as well as their security. It is also clear that bin Laden continued to guide Al Qaeda activities while cloistered in his house inside the high-security garrison area.

The report summed up the question about the network in just one paragraph and that too in terms of probability: “It was probably quite small and largely, if not exclusively, Al Qaeda and its associates. It probably had a wider group of less dedicated and less regular support from sympathetic Pakistani jihadi groups and individuals.”

In its ‘Findings’ section, the Commission notes: “The implicit assumption that only the CIA had the ability to find bin Laden in Pakistan indicated a complete lack of confidence by the ISI and the intelligence establishment in their own ability to do so. Either OBL was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone committed to doing his job honestly, or there was a complete collapse of local governance,” concluded the Abbottabad Commission report.

The writer is a journalist and the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow. He tweets @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 2nd, 2021



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