IF the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad wasn’t embarrassing enough, there is now even more reason for Pakistan to take a long, hard look at its record against terrorism. In news that confirms what the world had long suspected, an official Pakistani investigation team has learnt from one of bin Laden’s wives that he had been in Pakistan since 2002. For nine years the world’s most wanted terrorist survived in the country after fleeing the US attack on Tora Bora.
And he wasn’t confined to one place either. From Peshawar to Swat to Haripur to Abbottabad, the man responsible for the events of 9/11 somehow found shelter in Pakistan’s settled areas for months and, in some instances, years at a time. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials kept denying knowledge of his whereabouts, with Gen Musharraf claiming that he was either dead or in Afghanistan or the tribal areas. Is it possible that both civilian and military intelligence were unable to track down one of the world’s most recognised faces as he made his way from one Pakistani town to another? Or does this new information point to something more sinister? Who facilitated his movement and his stops, and were they ordinary citizens or members of law enforcement or intelligence agencies?
What is clear is that the judicial commission looking into his presence and the raid in Abbottabad can no longer limit its probe to those topics. In light of this investigation report, the commission now needs to expand its focus to encompass bin Laden’s presence in the country since 2002. This should include interviewing senior military, intelligence and police officials who served in the relevant areas at the time, including Gen Musharraf, under whose helm bin Laden first found passage into and shelter in this country.
At stake are several critical issues. For one, if Pakistani intelligence is really incompetent enough to have overlooked bin Laden’s presence for so long and in so many places, it is vital that the flaws in the system be identified and addressed. And if the failure had more to do with complicity than incompetence, it becomes even more important to discover how and why our institutions were penetrated, and at what levels. The commission’s delay in presenting its findings so far has already raised doubts about its freedom and independence, and the challenge it confronts just got bigger. How it addresses this breathtaking intelligence failure will be an indication of the seriousness, or lack thereof, of Pakistan’s commitment to combating terrorism, both for its own sake and that of the world’s security.