ISLAMABAD: In an unprecedented move, the country’s military offered itself to parliament on Friday for accountability over the intelligence failure and deficiencies that came to light in the wake of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s killing in a covert US commando raid in Abbottabad.
In an in camera briefing to a joint session of the two houses of parliament, top military officials admitted intelligence failure in not being able to locate the world’s most wanted fugitive taking up residence in Abbottabad for about five years and inability of Pakistani radars to track four US helicopters that carried out the May 2 operation, according to participants of the joint session.
It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that the military, which has ruled the country for more than half of 64 years of its life, came out with an open admission of failures and offered itself for accountability by parliament or any other forum.
After attending more than five hours’ briefing, several parliamentarians, from both opposition and treasury benches, told the media that the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, even offered to resign if the parliament so wished. “I am a disciplined person. I do not want to stay glued to the office and will accept any decision taken by parliament and the government,” one PML-Q legislator quoted the ISI chief as telling the session which, besides Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was also attended by all services chiefs.
A PML-Q MNA, Riaz Fatyana, told reporters outside the Parliament House that the military establishment had said it was ready to face any commission formed by parliament to probe the Abbottabad incident. He said the top military officials assured lawmakers that they were ready to act in line with the government’s decisions.
While the briefing was still in progress, Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan also came out of the chamber to divulge details of the proceedings to state-run and private television channels. She said the ISI DG had “surrendered” himself to parliament.
She said the military officials had reassured the lawmakers that the country’s nuclear assets were safe and fully protected. The armed forces were capable of defending the country’s frontiers, the minister quoted the officials as saying.
Firdous Awan quoted the ISI chief as saying there was no “intentional negligence” on the part of his organisation and that police and civilian agencies were also responsible for the intelligence failure.
She said General Pasha told the session he was prepared to present himself for accountability “before parliament or any other forum”. According to her, parliament was told that US authorities had kept Pakistani military authorities in “complete dark” and provided no prior information about their action in Abbottabad.
She said Gen Pasha highlighted the ISI’s achievements in the war against terror, saying it had “broken” Al Qaeda’s network by killing and arresting a number of its key operatives and that while elimination of Osama bin Laden was a common objective, the unilateral action by US Navy Seals commandos was “a clear breach of the country’s sovereignty”.
The minister also quoted the ISI chief as calling for revisiting Pakistan’s relationship with the US in the aftermath of the May 2 operation and that anti-state forces were hell-bent to create a cleavage between the military and civilian leadership.
Ms Awan quoted the Deputy Chief of Air Staff (operations), Air Marshal Mohammad Hassan, as telling the session that the American special forces used “stealth technology” during the operation. The technology allows helicopters to fly low and evade detection by radars. The radars were functioning smoothly on the day, he added.
According to a PPP MNA, who did not want to be named, military officials disclosed that the army chief had ordered shooting down the US helicopters, but by the time the PAF planes came into action, the helicopters were beyond the Pakistan airspace.
The session was informed that the US forces had kept jet fighters ready in Afghanistan to counter any Pakistani retaliation besides two of the four helicopters that took part in the operation -- flying only about 35 metres above the ground -- staying back in Kala Dhaka, to the northwest of Abbottabad.
The PPP MNA quoted General Pasha as saying that during his recent visit to the United States he had developed differences with Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta when he refused Mr Panetta’s request for permission to carry out covert operations in Pakistan.
According to the MNA, the ISI DG also expressed concern over what he called excessive issuance of visas to foreigners, saying that the ISI had some objections against some visitors.
The deputy chief of air staff told the house, according to the MNA, that drones used for spying flew from Shamsi airbase in Balochistan, while those carrying out missile attacks took off from Afghanistan and that the Shamsi airbase had been under the control of the UAE, and not of the PAF, since the 1990s.
A couple of PPP and PML-Q legislators quoted Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleyman as saying the PAF was capable of shooting down drones and could do it if ordered by the government.
According to them, PML-N MNA Tehmina Daultana started a fiery speech at the outset of the briefing, targeting the ISI and the army for what she called their political role and asked the ISI chief to resign from office.
She was countered by PML-Q MNA Shahnaz Sheikh, who praised the army for its role in the war on terror, before both were asked to stop such exchanges by Acting Speaker of the National Assembly Faisal Karim Kundi.
Mr Kundi chaired the session in the absence of both Speaker Fehmida Mirza and Senate Chairman Farooq H. Naek. Mr Naek was acting as president while President Asif Ali Zardari was on a visit to Russia.
One PPP MNA said members of the treasury benches had been asked by PPP chief whip and Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Ahmed Shah not to ask too many questions to avoid giving an opportunity to the opposition.
The briefing was also attended by the chief ministers of Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan and the Azad Kashmir prime minister.
PROTEST: Hundreds of activists of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf held a demonstration in the parade ground in front of the Parliament House in protest against the holding of in camera briefing. They chanted slogans and asked the president and the prime minister to resign for what they called their failure to protect national sovereignty.