from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Osama Bin Laden: What Did Pakistan Know?

August 2, 2011

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A newspaper stand displays magazines and posters bearing the pictures of al Qaeda leader bin Laden and U.S. President Obama in Karachi
A newspaper stand displays magazines and posters bearing the pictures of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and U.S. President Barack Obama (bottom L) in Karachi May 9, 2011 (Athar Hussain/Courtesy Reuters).

One month after Osama Bin Laden was killed, I published a piece that assessed the available information of the U.S. special operations raid’s intelligence, decisionmaking, and operational details. Yesterday, The New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle presented an excellent example of long-form journalism, which set the gold standard for explaining what happened on the early morning of May 2 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A crucial issue that neither of us delved into was whether Pakistani government officials knew Bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, and whether they provided shelter to him and his support network.

Pakistan senior officials always contended that Bin Laden was actually in Afghanistan. In 2006, President Pervez Musharraf claimed that the Al-Qaeda leader was in the eastern Kunar province of Afghanistan, while in 2009 Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stated flatly: “I don’t think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan."  U.S. officials, however, overwhelmingly believe that Pakistani government employees at some level were well aware of Bin Laden’s presence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that while “we have absolutely no reason to believe that anyone in the highest levels of the government knew…our counterparts in the [Pakistan] government were very forthcoming in saying that somebody somewhere was providing some kind of support.”

Although it will take a while, we will eventually have a more comprehensive understanding of what Pakistani officials knew regarding Bin Laden’s presence. Embarrassed by the American raid and angry at the lapses of the military and intelligence agencies, Pakistan has created an independent and open-ended commission of inquiry to examine the Abbottabad operation. Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Hussein Haqqani, has described the inquiry as “a high level commission--along the lines of the 9/11 Commission and Warren Commission” and warned that “heads will roll, once the investigation has been completed.”

The Abbottabad Commission was proposed by a May 13 joint resolution that unanimously passed both houses of parliament. Constituted under the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1956, which allows the government to “appoint a Commission of Inquiry for the purpose of making an inquiry into any definite matter of public importance,” it is mandated to: ascertain the facts regarding the presence of Bin Laden in Pakistan; investigate circumstances of the U.S. operation in Abbottabad; determine the nature, background and causes of lapses of the concerned authorities, if any; and make consequential recommendations (The government has concurrently created a similar commission “for in depth probe of the mysterious assassination of journalist Saleem Shahzad,” according to a Supreme Court statement).

The President of the Commission is Justice Javed Iqbal, who retired yesterday from the Supreme Court, with the remaining members selected jointly by the President and Prime Minister. They include: Abbas Khan, retired Police Inspector General of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, former diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed. Former Pakistani Supreme Court Justice, Fakhruddin Ebrahim, was also nominated but refused to serve.

The Commission held its first meeting on July 5, when it presented the modalities for the proceedings, which include that the hearings will open whenever possible, senior officials would be requested to testify, and individuals can provide information in confidence with legal protections from government prosecution. The Commission also directed the Ministry of the Interior and the Inter-Services Intelligence organization not to repatriate Bin Laden’s widows (one is Yemeni; two are Saudi) or children, as they could be summoned for questioning.

At two other meetings, on July 11 and July 25, senior military officials have provided new operational details regarding the raid, but no shocking revelations. The primary reasons provided by the armed services for failing to defend the country’s territory have been: the United States “acted in an environment of trust” in Afghanistan and thus no comparable threats were envisioned to come across the western borders; Pakistan’s high and low altitude air defense radars functioned correctly for a peacetime posture; and the stealth technology used by U.S. special operations helicopters would have made them almost undetectable given the variations of the terrain in northwestern Pakistan.

After the latest meeting, Lt. Gen. Ahmed offered his premature opinion of whether anyone sheltered Bin Laden, telling an Australian interviewer: “I have absolutely not an iota of doubt on this, that no government in Pakistan, no military in Pakistan, no intelligence organization in Pakistan would do such a stupid thing." In a hopeful sign of the Commission’s approach, Justice Iqbal condemned the retired general for his comments, noting that “no one has been exonerated so far.” 

The Abbottabad Commission’s eventual findings will not be released soon; Iqbal noted that it took the 9/11 Commission three years before its report was published. Nevertheless, the open process and eventual results could have significant ramifications for long-term U.S.-Pakistani relations. The two most important issues for Washington after 9/11 were the presence of Bin Laden and the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. We now know that Bin Laden lived in Pakistan from December 2001 until his death three months ago, and hopefully the Commission will determine what support, if any, he received from government employees.

The more pressing issue for the Commission to examine is the effectiveness of the military and intelligence agencies responsible for securing Pakistan’s estimated 90 to 110 nuclear warheads. At the July 25 meeting, Director General of Military Operations, Maj. Gen. Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, stated that “the strategic (nuclear) sites were very well protected and were under air and ground protection of the Pakistan Armed Forces, and were hence not comparable to the Abbottabad incident.”  This finding is consistent with the opinions of U.S. officials, who, when asked in congressional hearings, repeatedly emphasize that Pakistan has full control of its bombs—in large part because they are so essential to the country’s security. In May 2009, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen even claimed that Pakistan “actually put in an increased level of security measures in the last three or four years.”

One hopes this characterization is accurate. In a distressing anecdote that went unnoticed in the mainstream press, Senator Ben Nelson revealed in a May Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing that, “In late 2001, I asked General Musharraf how confident he was that they had the security of all their nuclear weapons under control.  And after a little bit of thought, he said 95 percent.” Given that Pakistan is growing its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country in the world, we should hope that that five percent insecurity does not exist today.

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