Bin Laden: Exposing Pakistan’s paradoxes

Killing of al-Qaeda leader puts focus on state’s delicately balanced contradictions and strategic ambiguity.

Pakistan feature
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed during a US raid on May 2 in a middle-class neighbourhood of Abbottabad, a military garrison town [GALLO/GETTY]

It had to be Abbottabad.

That is to say, while it is unsurprising to a degree that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader and the most wanted man in the world, was found in Pakistan, it is particularly telling that when he was eventually tracked down (and killed), it was not to a cave in a remote tribal agency, but a fortified compound – not two kilometres from Pakistan’s military academy, in the heart of a city that is home to three regimental headquarters of the Pakistani army.

The location of bin Laden’s hideout – “in plain sight” as Yousuf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, has put it – seems to indicate that members of Pakistan’s intelligence services were either on some level complicit in harbouring the al-Qaeda leader, or were wholly incompetent in tracking his whereabouts.

Or, perhaps more likely, it was both. Depending on who you ask, sections of the Pakistani intelligence establishment were likely complicit in harbouring bin Laden, while others were incompetent in tracking him down as per stated government policy. Others, including the Pakistani government, have simply chalked it up to a “global intelligence failure”. Either way, it is damning reading.

The US made its position on the perceived divisions in Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) clear when Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said that intelligence on the operation to take out bin Laden was not shared with Pakistan out of fear that it would “jeopardise the mission”.

“They might alert the targets,” he said, of a country that is avowedly the US’ most important ally in the region.

Barack Obama, the US president, stated on the US television show 60 Minutes that it was clear that bin Laden had “some sort of support network… inside Pakistan”, though he stopped short of saying that the Pakistani state was complicit in this network. Tom Donilon, the US president’s national security adviser, later went on NBC’s Meet The Press to say that he had “not seen any evidence that would tell us that the political, the military or the intelligence leadership had foreknowledge of bin Laden”.

Nevertheless, when push came to shove, the US chose to act unilaterally, and in his speech to announce bin Laden’s death, Obama made only the slightest allusion to “intelligence cooperation” with Pakistan. In the following days, several prominent US lawmakers, including the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, strongly questioned whether the Pakistani state, in one form or another, was involved in harbouring the al-Qaeda leader.

There is then, it would appear, a distinct trust deficit for the US when it comes to the reliability of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment.

Navigating the morass

That deficit notwithstanding, there is another narrative at play: that the ISI served up bin Laden to the United States.

“I find it quite unbelievable that in a place like Abbottabad that Osama could turn up without the ISI knowing that he was there,” Shaukat Qadir, a defence analyst and retired Brigadier in the Pakistani army, told Al Jazeera.

Qadir points out that the house that bin Laden was killed in, in the Bilal Town area of the city, had previously been raided when the ISI had information that Abu Faraj al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda operative, was staying there in 2003.

“Somebody would have been keeping an eye on this place,” he said.

“The conclusion I come to is that he came [to Abbottabad] because he was lured in, and this whole thing is a case of entrapment [and] it could not have happened without the ISI being involved,” Qadir proposes. He also points to the fact that the unnamed “trusted courier” who the US authorities say led them to bin Laden appears to have disappeared – neither the US or Pakistan say that they have him – as proof that bin Laden had been “set up”.

“The agencies most probably knew, and by implication were complicit,” Imtiaz Gul, the head of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies, told Al Jazeera. “Most probably they weighed various options and eventually decided to get rid of him, most probably for a quid pro quo: a greater role in post-phased US withdrawal in Afghanistan, and redressal of Pakistani apprehensions on the Indian presence in that country.”

Several other Pakistani defence analysts, including Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of a book examining the Pakistani military, and Talat Masood, a retired Lieutenant-General in the Pakistani army, have also opined that it seems impossible that authorities on some level did not know that bin Laden was present in Abbottabad.

Indeed, this is about the only thing that analysts can seem to agree on: that someone, somewhere in Pakistan’s intelligence establishment knew where bin Laden was. From there, however, the story grows murkier. While some, like Brig (retd) Qadir and Gul, believe that the ISI did the grunt work in tracking down bin Laden and delivering him, others such as Haroun Mir, the deputy director of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul, say the intelligence authorities were entirely unaware of the operation to capture or kill the al-Qaeda leader.

“Based on the reaction of the Pakistanis, [I think] they were totally in the dark. They were certainly complicit by providing sanctuary for al-Qaeda members and Osama bin Laden himself,” he said, questioning why Pakistan’s intelligence services were not able to investigate the house where bin Laden had reportedly been living for years, when “even neighbours were suspicious of the people who were living in the compound”.

Besides, Mir says that the ISI was unlikely to deliver bin Laden in a military garrison town: “If the Pakistanis wanted to get rid of Osama bin Laden, it would have been preferable for them that he be killed in a cave or a mountain near the Afghan border… now that he is killed in the heart of Pakistan, this is certainly a big blow.”

Haider Mullick, a Fellow at both the US Joint Special Operations University and the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, suggests that there may be a middle path through the morass: “I suspect it’s a little bit of both [complicity and incompetence].”

Mullick suggests bin Laden was harboured by former ISI operatives who had been recruited by al-Qaeda in the wake of purges in the agency in 2001 and 2002. In that clean-up, personnel who were deemed to be sympathetic to militant groups that were then being abandoned by the state were removed from service.

“That’s a very important kind of network that the serving ISI does not have a lot of control over,” Mullick told Al Jazeera.

Moreover, there are several directorates within the ISI, with some still involved in fomenting insurgency in Kashmir, he said, and that leaves room for various linkages between what the state considers to be “good” and “bad” groups.

Mullick suggests that an “ISI alumni network” has been actively involved in al-Qaeda attacks against the Pakistani state, while the upper echelons of the intelligence establishment remained unaware of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

This would allow for the ISI to provide indirect intelligence support for the operation over recent months, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others have suggested, even as “rogue elements” may have actively harboured bin Laden.

Strategic calculus at odds

Regardless of which it is – incompetence or complicity – the United States is likely to grow even more wary of Pakistan’s commitment to the strategic partnership between the two countries. Indeed, it would appear the strategic calculus of both countries is directly at odds. The United States has, over the past year, instituted a “surge” meant to weaken the Taliban in order to pursue a negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan, while Pakistan has been focusing only on fighting those groups who are involved in attacks on the Pakistani state.


The country draws a distinction between the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that has operated from South Waziristan Agency – until it was pushed out by a military operation that began in 2009 – and now has based itself in Orakzai Agency. It also has not committed to the elimination of groups focused on fighting the Indian state in Kashmir, including Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The diverging objectives crystallise themselves in the Pakistani army’s refusal to carry out an operation in North Waziristan, where the US says Taliban fighters and members of the Haqqani group have been finding refuge. The Pakistani army, however, is more interested in pursuing the TTP in Orakzai Agency, saying that it is attempting to outflank it by establishing a peace accord in Kurram Agency – a peace accord that Brig (retd) Qadir says that the Haqqani group has been helping to enforce. (That claim has been disputed by analysts on the ground in Kurram, however.)

Will the bin Laden episode put the US in a position to leverage for more Pakistani ground operations against targets the US wants addressed, or will it instead attempt to continue its current policy of encouraging such operations while not pushing too hard, in an attempt to keep Pakistan on-side for its help in reaching a negotiated Afghan settlement?

Again, a bit of both.

Christine Fair, an assistant professor at the Centre for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story that, with a “creeping exasperation in [the US] Congress” regarding Pakistan’s policies, the US is likely going to push for more pro-active policies.

“They certainly had a big ‘I got you’ moment when it came with Raymond Davis – this is a much bigger ‘I got you’ moment. And I think it is going to give the Americans much more leeway to prosecute their interests, with ever less input and support from the Pakistanis,” she said.

“I think the Americans are certainly going to be much more galvanised to go it alone and […] the Pakistanis are going to have to pretty much deal with this, because this is a pretty big failure on their part.”

Nevertheless, Fair says there is also a “concerted effort to sort of salvage Pakistan”.

“You’ve had Secretary Clinton say that Pakistan was very much a part of the operation, and so this signals to me that no matter what… whether it’s just ineptitude or complicity, the US does not have an interest in having a significant rupture in the relationship with Pakistan. And I think that’s actually very important to note. It also should let the Pakistanis know that no matter what goes down, the Americans are going to be too afraid to let you completely unravel.”

Mullick, the Washington-based analyst, agrees that the US is likely to “muddle through”, criticising Pakistani policies while remaining within certain “red lines”, afraid of the consequences of creating an unstable nuclear-armed country that adopts an overtly anti-US stance.

Pakistan, it would seem, is one of the few countries that can get more out of its international partners by pointing a gun to its own head.

“There will be no policy review,” Mullick says, “but there will be policy adjustments, to calm down the US Congress and taxpayer.”

Qadir, the retired Brigadier, agrees that the US will continue to attempt to pressure Pakistan through the military and civilian aid that it provides the country, but that “it’s a question of who will outlast who”.

“This pressure tactic [on a North Waziristan operation] is always a bit of a double-bluff game. We know that they need us. They know that we know that they need us.”

Mullick, however, believes that, if Pakistan refuses to engage the Haqqani group in North Waziristan, the US may press the country to declare its incompetence in dealing with militancy, using the bin Laden episode as proof, and use this as justification for putting US boots on the ground in that area.

A fine balance

The picture that emerges from the apparent chaos is that of a country of carefully balanced contradictions.


Al Jazeera’s Inside Story on the implications of the US raid on Abbottabad for the Pak-US relationship

The ISI, for example, has for decades carefully cultivated an air of omnipotence – and yet on cases such as the bin Laden episode, it pleads that it had no foreknowledge of his whereabouts.

Omnipotent, then, but selectively failure-prone, too.

The state makes distinctions between militant groups based on their targets, but not necessarily on their ideology. Groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, for example, are organisationally distinct from the Taliban and are cultivated for their role in Kashmir – but Maulana Masood Azhar, the group’s leader, has from the group’s inception advocated jihad against all those perceived to be the enemies of Islam, particularly the United States.

The distinctions do not end there. The country’s strategic calculus demands that it also make distinctions between groups fighting the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, treating the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban – who say they do not consider the Pakistan state an enemy – as strategic assets.

In any Afghan endgame, Mullick says that Pakistan would look for the Haqqani group and the Quetta Shura to control Afghanistan’s border regions, providing Pakistan what the state terms “strategic depth”, in case of conflict with India.

From Kabul, this approach seems self-defeating.”You cannot make distinctions between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, [they have the] same system, same madrassas and same propaganda, and I think [the Pakistani military is] making a huge mistake [thinking] that they could control the Afghan Taliban while eliminating their own Taliban,” says Mir, the Kabul-based analyst.

“Now they want to use fire to extinguish fire, which will never work … ultimately the ideology of both Talibans is the same, only their objectives differ.”

Fair, the DC-based professor, agrees that it is Pakistan’s support for certain militant groups that has landed it in this situation, where there is no clear line on militancy – as a result of state policies which use such groups as tools of its foreign policy.

“This is Pakistan reaping the whirlwind of decades of dangerous policies,” she said.

And quite a whirlwind it has been: according to the Pakistani government, 30,000 Pakistani civilians have died since 2001 in attacks related to the war against terrorism. Moreover, since 2007, al-Qaeda declared the Pakistan state its primary enemy.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s populace remains fiercely anti-American, and, in the absence of a uniting narrative on militancy, often supportive of militant groups who espouse their political sentiments vis a vis the US.

It is thus that you have a country that, since 2001, is both terrorism’s biggest victim, and sections of which are apparently also complicit in the continued existence of terrorism in the region.

In a 2010 study on public support for militancy in Pakistan, Fair and Jacob Shapiro, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, showed that Pakistanis tend to support militant groups not because of their religiosity, poverty or lack of education, but because of the political causes that such groups espouse. Indeed, the study showed there was significant evidence to suggest that Pakistanis differentiated between groups in much the same way as their government does: based on their political objectives.

It is thus that you have a government whose statements after the raid have tended to suggest that, while the war against terrorism is owned by Pakistanis, this war is different from the US war. Asif Zardari, the country’s president, in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on May 3, argues that “Pakistan did its part” in getting Osama bin Laden, and seeks to draw a line under the whole affair. He did not address the matter in the domestic press.

Prime minister Gilani, meanwhile, in a speech to parliament on May 9, appeared to condemn the United States as much as he did terrorism – and while he tempered his rhetoric by saying that Pakistan’s relations with the US are based on “mutual interests” as well as “trust” and “respect”, Pakistani analysts rejected the speech as doing little to speak to the underlying contradictory narratives that Pakistanis battle with.

And that, ultimately, remains the real story for Pakistan: a country in the delicate balance of apparent paradoxes, which successive governments continually leave unaddressed.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera