Often things are not what they seem at first glance. And this is becoming increasingly obvious with the operation leading to the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, on 1 May by an elite team of American Navy SEALS in Abbottabad, a town only about 50 kilometres from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
With the dust now starting to settle, one can examine this spectacular counter-terrorism operation more carefully. And, accordingly, we may well be able to draw a different, and possibly a more credible, interpretation of Pakistan’s role in this operation.
From the moment this story broke, everyone was asking the most obvious question: how was it possible that bin Laden could have been living in such a large compound, surrounded by 5.5 metre walls and topped with barber wire, in the same city which houses Pakistan’s military cadet college without the Pakistani authorities knowing it?
As the US Counter-terrorism chief John Brennan stated, it was “inconceivable” that bin Laden would not have had some kind of support system, including from elements of the Pakistani intelligence. Although Pakistan is a very big country, with some 175 million people, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Anything out of the ordinary does not go unnoticed.
Notwithstanding the public declaration by the Pakistan Prime Minister in April 2010 that bin Laden was not in Pakistan and may even be dead, it is extremely difficult to believe that the Pakistani authorities, or at least elements of the army or intelligence, were not aware of bin Laden’s presence in that compound.
So there are two possibilities: either the Pakistani army’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) genuinely was not aware that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, and that would mean that it was utterly incompetent, or it has known all along, and that would mean extreme duplicity on the ISI’s part.
Given the ISI’s important role in catching other terrorists in the past, including Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the Al-Qaeda mastermind of September 11, my money is on the latter explanation.
I believe bin Laden was Pakistan’s ultimate trump card and Islamabad – more precisely the military – decided to give him up for three reasons.
First, the Americans probably showed the Pakistani authorities irrefutable intelligence confirming the whereabouts of bin Laden. Islamabad could no longer ignore the obvious. Accordingly, it was left with no option but to cooperate with the Americans in the eventual assassination of the Al-Qaeda leader. Any other decision would have been a strategic mistake with huge negative consequences for Pakistan.
Second, Pakistan needed to re-build its relationship with Washington, especially after the long-drawn out Raymond Davis affairs in which a CIA operative was held in custody for almost two months.
Third, with bin Laden gone, it would be easier for the Afghan Taliban to eventually cut a political deal with Afghan President Karzai. And with such a deal, it would be easier for the US and its Coalition allies – including Australia - to then leave Afghanistan by 2014 as planned. And with the Taliban part of the political structure in Kabul and the West out of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s strategic aim will have been achieved.
In return for Pakistan’s cooperation, Islamabad will have probably asked two things: a greater say in the behind-the-scene negotiations between the Taliban and the Karzai government in the resolution of the Afghan conflict and an end – or at least a significant reduction - of the unmanned US drone attacks in the tribal areas of north western Pakistan. Whether the US would have delivered on these remains to be seen.
The Pakistan government owed bin Laden nothing. On the contrary, he had been an ideological figure for the Pakistani Taliban which has been terrorising the Pakistani population for the last four years. Moreover, he was an obstacle to an eventual peace deal with the Afghan Taliban. He was therefore expandable.
However, given bin Laden’s popularity in Pakistan, the Pakistani authorities would not have wanted any publicity about their involvement in this operation for fear of the domestic backlash it would cause. Pakistan’s President Zardari is already seen as being too pro-American – a perception that is not helpful in this society where anti-Americanism is rampant.
The US administration would have been happy with such a ‘no-publicity’ request. Accordingly, while President Obama did mention the counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries, he did not thank President Zardari for Pakistan’s help in this operation.
Given the ‘trust deficit’ between Washington and Islamabad, the US decided (as confirmed by CIA Director Leon Panetta yesterday) not to share the details of the operations with the Pakistanis for fear of bin Laden being tipped off before hand. Nevertheless, the Pakistani military would have had to have given prior clearance for the US helicopters to fly some 200 kilometres to Afghanistan to avoid being shot at following the operation.
Of course, no one will ever know - at least not too soon - if that’s the way events unfolded. But at the end of the day, as President Obama stated during his recent address, the death of bin Laden is a “good and historic day” for both the US and Pakistan.
However, even with this good news, one question will simply not go away: why did Pakistan – an ally of the US in the war on terror - harbour bin Laden for so long when it was clearly against its own national interest? Until this question is answered US-Pakistan relations will continue to remain shaky. And that’s bad news for all.