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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
US-Pakistan relations and bin Laden's demise
Bin Laden's capture has not told us anything new about the dysfunctional US-Pakistan relationship.
Last Modified: 24 May 2011 10:28
Bin Laden's hideout in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad left the US baffled as to why the operation took nearly ten years to accomplish [EPA] 

The past three weeks have not been easy for a self-professed - one might say "confessed" - friend of Pakistan, at least not for one who makes his address in Washington, DC.

No sooner had President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden in a covert raid by US commandos on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, home of the Pakistan Military Academy, than a monumental media firestorm was set loose, making rational dialogue concerning the situation next to impossible. All manner of ill-informed stories shot up like high-order detonations, quickly accompanied by dubious "expert commentary", much of which was highly misleading.

Just to cite one of the more unfortunate examples, initial, breathless accounts of the bin Laden compound described it as a huge mansion, heavily fortified with 18-foot (5.5m) walls - some eight times bigger than anything surrounding it - thus conveying the mental picture of a cross between the Taj Mahal and the US gold vault at Fort Knox. Pakistani officials, it was alleged, "had" to have known that this was an extraordinary location. Not to have investigated it was the equivalent of willful ignorance, it was said, if not a clear indication of outright official collusion with bin Laden and his hosts.

One was startled, then, to see the first horizontal ground images of the place, clearly indicating that such stories were nonsense. To anyone remotely familiar with the area, there was virtually nothing about the bin Laden compound to elicit even a second glance.

Media fire and PR disasters

Meanwhile, the White House, apparently over-taxed by the strain of keeping the operation secret for many weeks, began to make up for lost time, heaping fuel on the media fire. Forgetting the old axiom that "first reports from the field are always wrong", White House spokesmen seized upon every snippet and half-truth to make whatever point seemed expedient at the time - claiming, for example, that bin Laden, far from the noble paragon he had long presented himself to be, died while cowering behind his wife - only to have to retract their stories later on.

Much of this was merely embarrassing. Far more damaging than such foolery were the pious, portentous, politically motivated and manifestly unhelpful pronouncements concerning Pakistan. Compounding the obvious, President Obama intoned that bin Laden must have had a support network to remain in Pakistan, and both he and other senior officials strongly suggested that the US would be actively pursuing the question as to whether that network might have included serving Pakistani government officials.

All of this was more than enough, of course, to set off wild howls from the fever-swamps of the US Congress, where frank, if uninformed allegations of Pakistani military and ISI protection of bin Laden were accompanied by threats to cut off economic and military aid to our erstwhile ally.

None of this is meant to suggest, however, that the circumstances of bin Laden's demise were anything other than a genuine PR disaster for Pakistan. Indeed, appearances could hardly have been worse. Pakistani officials were left with the challenge of maintaining a sense of dignity while trying to explain, first, how the world's most wanted man could have hidden in peace and tranquility, apparently for years on end, in a pleasant hill station long dominated by the Pakistan Army; and then how this same man could have been discovered and brazenly killed by a nominally close ally and benefactor which revealed itself, in the process, as viewing Pakistan with a combination of deep moral distrust and almost contemptuous disregard for both its sovereignty and its capacity for self-defence. 

Faced with this intolerable situation, Pakistani officials characteristically set about to make it worse. The Prime Minister, apparently channeling the past PR peccadillos of his president, issued a brief statement and departed for Paris, leaving it to the military to make an account of what had happened and why. In the meantime, Pakistani military and intelligence sources, unable to hit upon a coherent and consistent counter-narrative, either sought credit for having provided the US with past intelligence of relevance to the bin Laden operation, or else denied all knowledge of and involvement in the raid - denouncing the US for its violation of Pakistani sovereignty. When at last the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff spoke out, his combination of protestation and threat only served to underscore Pakistani impotence.

Eliminating the possibilty of Pakistan's involvement

In the days since this unpromising start to the post-bin Laden era, and despite some effort by both sides to stress the need for continuity of relations, dark portents have abounded of a perhaps irretrievable breakdown in US-Pakistan relations. US Senator Kerry, at pains during his recent visit to Pakistan to strike a conciliatory and forward-looking tone, also went out of his way to stress that patience in the US Congress for what many see as Pakistani double-dealing and equivocation regarding terrorism may be at an end. Even relatively moderate US voices are calling for a return to a starkly transactional relationship with Pakistan, demanding that the latter strike immediately at the extremists of greatest concern to the US and its allies, and shut down their safe havens, or else face a cut-off of US aid. In response, one hears the rejoinder from certain voices in Pakistan, threatening a shut-down of NATO logistical lines into Afghanistan.

It would seem that we are past time when it would behoove us all to take a deep breath, calmly analyse what has just happened, and try to assess what it portends for the future.

First of all, on the key question of possible official Pakistani complicity in providing safe haven to bin Laden, it is increasingly clear that there was none - despite the embarrassing circumstances of bin Laden's eventual discovery in Abbottabad. I and many others have long said that given a reasonable degree of discipline and a very small number of dedicated supporters, bin Laden could be sequestered indefinitely in a compound somewhere in Pakistan, and maintain communications with subordinates who would remain completely unaware not only of his actual location, but even of the true identities of his couriers. The fact that this location turned out to be in Abbottabad may be startling, but in truth, bin Laden could literally have been almost anywhere. 

Moreover, the idea that bin Laden and al-Qaeda could, or would, have voluntarily conspired with Pakistanis to hide him from the beginning, or indeed at any point down the line, defies rational belief. Consider how the Pakistani government must look from an al-Qaeda perspective: This is a government which shifted policy almost 180 degrees after 9/11, provided a platform of logistical support for a US invasion of Afghanistan and all-out attacks on both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and was directly responsible for the capture of many dozens of al-Qaeda cadres on its soil in subsequent years. If the US distrusts Pakistan, imagine how much more reason al-Qaeda has to do so.

Combine all of the above with the fact there is no positive evidence of official Pakistani knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts, and further add consideration of how difficult it would have been to maintain such a conspiracy within the Pakistani government through multiple institutional leadership changes, and doubts about the Pakistanis in this regard begin to fade sharply.

There is an associated point here, however, which should be stressed; for in my estimation, it is also quite plausible that, had the Pakistani ISI discovered bin Laden's whereabouts on its own, facing the twin prospects of domestic political discord and extremist vengeance for capturing bin Laden and turning him over to the US, Pakistani officials would have been quite capable of deciding to let that proverbial sleeping dog lie, and could easily have rationalised doing so. The comment from an ISI contact reported by The Independent's foreign correspondent Robert Fisk says it all: "Sometimes it's better to survey people than to attack them."

Again, I do not believe the Pakistanis were officially complicit in protecting bin Laden, or even passively aware of his whereabouts, but the fact that even in the judgment of this sympathetic observer they were eminently capable of having done so under certain circumstances is highly relevant to my other two related points.

The first of those two points concerns the behaviour of the US in this instance: Was it absolutely necessary for US officials to move against bin Laden unilaterally, or might they reasonably have brought the Pakistanis into their confidence in a joint operation? Otherwise put, how significant was it in terms of its bilateral relations with Pakistan that the US would have opted to mount such a high-risk unilateral spectacular on Pakistani soil?

I believe we can take former President Musharraf at his word when he asserts that there was never any formal agreement between himself and the George W Bush administration to permit unilateral US actions against bin Laden or Zawahiri on Pakistani soil. The Americans would not have asked, and there was no reason for the Pakistanis to agree. That said, both Bush and Obama administration officials had long made publicly clear that at least where the top two officials in al-Qaeda were concerned, the US would take whatever actions were necessary to effect their killing or capture, without much regard for Pakistani sovereignty.

It is important to remember, however, that the unspoken assumption behind such assertions was that the al-Qaeda leadership was most likely to be found in the remote tribal areas, and thus probably beyond the effective writ and military scope of Pakistani authorities to mount a successful operation. The question therefore had more to do with Pakistani capabilities than with Pakistani willingness, though in the case of the politically sensitive Saudi, there would always be questions of willingness as well. What the US was saying, in effect, was that given a choice between violating Pakistani sovereignty and assuming a substantially greater risk of squandering an opportunity to neutralise bin Laden, the US would opt for the former.

Timing is key

The possibility that bin Laden might be in Abbottabad, however, would have generated a qualitatively different calculus, even if, in the end, the answer would prove to be the same. Abbottabad, needless to say, was fully in Pakistani control, and a location where Pakistani authorities could easily have effected bin Laden's capture, if they chose to do so. Let's not forget that Pakistani authorities had carried out many dozens of such captures in the "settled areas" of the country, working in conjunction with US intelligence, in the years since 9/11. Intelligence services - even those most closely allied - generally will not share information until is it manifestly in their interest to do so, and the CIA would not reasonably have sought Pakistani help to verify the identity of the mysterious recluse in the compound in Abbottabad so long as they thought themselves in a position to do so on their own.

But when it came time to take action, had this scenario played out, say, in 2002 or 2003, when such senior  al-Qaeda operatives as Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad were being captured cooperatively by the US and Pakistan, might the Americans have taken a different approach? Indeed, the US could have minimised the 'bin Laden factor' by having simply failed to reveal their suspicions regarding the identity of the "senior al-Qaeda cadre" in question. Although all such decisions are situationally dependent, and can only be made on the basis of a detailed appreciation of the facts at the time, it is my considered opinion that Abbottabad might have played out very differently had it taken place in 2003 - or even in 2006.

What is manifestly clear, however, is that 2011 is not 2006 where US-Pakistani relations are concerned. The nascent divergences in the perceived interests of the countries of which we were so aware at the time have developed much further, to the point that they are both far wider and far more acute. Moreover, the tensions involved in trying to manage these underlying divergences have become so neuralgic, leading to the types of intelligence disputes of which the "Raymond Davis affair" is but a symptom, that one cannot rule out frankly self-destructive actions by either side, which are as likely to be committed out of pique as out of any rational calculation of self-interest. Add to all of this the fact that the US could simply not exclude the real possibility that Pakistani officials might have decided on a course of willful ignorance in Abbottabad, and one can conclude that the US had no choice but to move unilaterally against bin Laden.

Speaking in Islamabad, Senator Kerry heroically tried to explain the US' seemingly high-handed and distrustful treatment of Pakistan in this case as being driven simply by the need for operational security - the same reason why he himself was only informed of the operation after the fact. And fundamentally, he was right. A deeper look into the likely details of the Americans' risk-vs-gain analysis in Abbottabad, however, reveals that the contradictions in US-Pakistan relations have reached a point where they can no longer be managed as before, and must be addressed head-on. In short, the US attack on bin Laden has not told us anything new about US-Pakistani dysfunction. It has merely made such dysfunction no longer tolerable.

Robert L Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA's Clandestine Service. Mr Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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