ISLAMABAD: As the United States announced the death of Osama bin Laden, the Pakistani state, especially its military struggled to explain the role it played in the momentous event and contain the domestic political fallout on Monday.
In a damage control exercise, the Pakistan military tried to find refuge in ‘intelligence failure’ as the elusive Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in a CIA-led helicopter borne raid on a house right under the nose of Pakistan military’s training academy.
“We had been looking for him in no-go areas, unaware that he was living so close to an installation of ours. Yes, it is an intelligence failure,” a senior military official told Dawn in a background session on OBL’s death in an operation carried out by a US Navy SEAL strike team under CIA command.
Even as military officials tried to downplay Osama’s killing in a compound less than a kilometre away from Kakul academy, they found very few takers of their explanation.
This was hardly surprising as it is hard to believe that the paranoid security agencies never conducted a reconnaissance of the vicinity of their main training facility during times when military installations faced a continuous threat of terrorist attacks. Odder still is the fact that the military authorities or the intelligence sleuths never felt the need to find out who was using a heavily guarded structure that was protected by barded wires and fortified walls and had the extra precaution of surveillance cameras.
It is in fact tragically comical that this compound was at a stone’s throw from where Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani attended a parade around a week ago; when he said publicly that his soldiers had broken the back of militants.
Was the general completely unaware that the most wanted man lived but a short distance away? Did he also not have a clue about what was to happen in the coming days in that town?
Military officials vehemently insist that they had not been taken on board by the Americans about the operation.
In hindsight, the flurry of activity that took place in the past week or so indicates that something was up.
ISAF Commander Gen Petraeus paid an extraordinary visit to Islamabad last Monday (April 25), when he is said to have held ‘a short and crisp’ discussion with Gen Kayani at an unusual meeting venue -- Chaklala Airbase. The two generals are even said to have taken a short trip to an undisclosed location on board an aircraft. The same night Gen Petraeus had through teleconferencing attended a White House meeting chaired by President Barack Obama.
Observers feel that President Obama referred to that meeting in his speech on Monday morning, in which he announced the death of Osama: “And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorised an operation to get Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
The very next day, Pakistan’s top military coordination body -- Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee -- held its quarterly session, which was attended among others by ISI Chief Gen Shuja Pasha, who otherwise isn’t a regular member of the body. The meeting was unscheduled.
The final orders for the raid were signed by President Obama last Friday in the presence of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, his deputy Denis McDonough and counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan.
However, it is not just the denial of the Pakistan army of any prior knowledge of the operation that is raising eyebrows.
Another anomaly in the Pakistan military’s account of the raid is their explanation of how four US helicopters evaded the country’s air defence system for about an hour (almost 30 minutes each side) as they flew in from Bagram and returned after a 40-minute long foray.
One official claimed that the helicopters succeeded in avoiding detection through ‘Nap of the earth flight’ -- a military tactic involving low-altitude flying to evade air defence systems. Yet another maintained that the air defence systems had been jammed by the Americans.
If this sequence of events is to be believed then why did President Obama appreciate Pakistan’s cooperation in the operation? Was it out of love for the country?
“But it’s important to note that our counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” Mr Obama said.
Whatever the case, Pakistani commanders took heart from President Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statements on the incident.
They think that the statements had provided Pakistan with a way out of the awkward situation and given the space for both sides to continue with their war on militancy cooperation.
It was in line with this assessment of the situation and the subsequent American stance that the Foreign Office statement on Osama’s killing was drafted. The carefully worded statement renewed its pledge to continue cooperation with the US in fight against militancy.
“Pakistan has played a significant role in efforts to eliminate terrorism. We have had extremely effective intelligence sharing arrangements with several intelligence agencies, including that of the US. We will continue to support international efforts against terrorism.”
The statement had hailed the operation as “a major setback to terrorist organisations around the world”.
Evident from the statement were the worries in the foreign ministry and among the civilian leadership and among military command about the questions that would be asked, especially about the violation of country’s sovereignty during the conduct of the operation. Hence, it took recourse to America’s right of defence and international law.
At one point, the statement noted that “the operation was conducted by the US forces in accordance with the declared US policy that Osama bin Laden will be eliminated in a direct action by the US forces, wherever found in the world.” Whereas at another point, it said “Al Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan.”
The statement emphasised that the operation had been carried out by the US forces, and not Pakistani troops.
This is also the line pushed by the civilian government whose Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said the operation was carried out by the US in exercise of UNSC mandate.