Pakistan’s military response to the raid that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden on the night of May 1, 2011, was entirely inadequate, a leaked government report has charged. Furthermore, due to “outdated” defence procedures and an overall defence “policy bankruptcy”, the country remains vulnerable to such raids in the future, the report reveals.
The Abbottabad Commission, tasked with investigating the circumstances around Bin Laden’s nine year residence, and subsequent death, in Pakistan, found not only that it had taken more than three hours for Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets to be scrambled to respond to a violation of Pakistani airspace, but that the country’s two key defence policy documents – the Defence Policy (DP) and the Joint Strategic Directive (JSD), referred to as the “Bible” of the Pakistani armed forces – had not been updated since 2004 and 2007 respectively.
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The policies are entirely lopsided in threat assessment, the Commission found, treating India as the only designated “hostile” country against which active military defence is sanctioned.
The Commission’s members spoke to more than 200 witnesses, including senior members of the military, intelligence services and civilian leadership, and carried out several visits to military bases in the course of their investigations.
The report breaks down the failures of the authorities stage-by-stage in the Bin Laden case. Its scathing 336-page report, which lambasts the country’s civilian, military and bureaucratic authorities in equal measure, was initially suppressed by the Pakistani government, but leaked exclusively by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit on Monday.
“Is it official or unofficial defence policy not to attempt to defend the country if attacked by a military superpower like the [United States]?” the report’s authors ask several top military and intelligence officers.
Failure to detect helicopters
The failures start early, on the night of May 1, 2011, itself – though the conditions necessary for such failures to occur had been in place long in advance of Bin Laden’s death.
According to the Commission’s estimates, four US helicopters – two stealth Black Hawks and two Chinooks – entered Pakistani airspace at approximately 11:20pm, in the vicinity of Ghursal and Shilman in the mountainous northern Khyber tribal area. Flying low and fast, they were able to evade Pakistani low-altitude radar deployments, which are limited in number on the western border and are on “peacetime deployment”.
The helicopters dropped US Navy SEALs on the Abbottabad compound where Bin Laden resided at approximately 12:30am. They spent just under 40 minutes carrying out operations. At 1:06am, they blew up a downed stealth helicopter and began their return trip to a US airbase in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, with Bin Laden’s body on board. The last US helicopter was estimated to have left Pakistani airspace at 2:26am.
The first that the Pakistani Air Force heard of the raid, however, was not from radar alerts from its air defence systems, but through a phone call from Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani at approximately 2:07am – two hours and 47 minutes after the incursion first took place.
Kayani, according to Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) Major-General Ashfaq Nadeem, informed the Chief of Air Staff that Pakistan’s airspace had been violated, and asked him to “shoot down the intruding helicopters”.
F-16 fighter jets and support aircraft were not, however, scrambled from the Mushaf Air Base for a further 43 minutes – then 24 minutes after US forces had left Pakistani airspace, and more than three and a half hours since the incursion first began.
So why were Pakistani low-altitude radars not active on its western borders, which include a 1,287km border with Afghanistan, where an active military conflict has been raging since 2001? According to the PAF’s board of inquiry formed after the incident, it was because the air force had not been “directed…]to be mindful of a direct military threat from the United States, and there was no prior intelligence or information with regard to an impending US raiding operation”, according to the Commission’s report.
The PAF inquiry concluded that the event was “a combined failure at all levels in assessing the intentions of the USA”, but does not ascribe specific responsibility for the failure to any department or individual.
A senior Air Force official terms the incident “one of the most embarrassing” in Pakistan’s history, and, again, ascribes the failure to the country’s defence policies, and specifically the Defence Policy and Joint Strategic Directive documents themselves, as not designating the United States as a hostile country. The PAF “never expected [the US] to commit such a dastardly act”, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Operations (DCAS(O)) tells the Commission. This was a view echoed by Maj-Gen Nadeem, and others in the military hierarchy.
Moreover, PAF officials admitted that the country’s air defence procedures had failed, and instead of the response chain being initiated by radar contact, it was started by a phone call. The resulting situation was “fraught with risk”, the DCAS(O) said, as the PAF had just sent pilots into a hostile situation with “incomplete information and no situational awareness at all”.
Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman reiterated to the Commission that, in light of the country’s defence policy, the US was not considered a threat, and the violation of its airspace and territory on May 1, 2011, was considered a “betrayal”. He implied that, under the current policy, there was no “response capability” on the western border, although one was in place on the eastern borders with India.
The Commission noted, in conversations with both air force and other military officials, several previous incidents of US incursions into Pakistani territory – including, notably, twice in 2008 when US forces conducted limited “boots on the ground” operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as previous US air strikes targeting Pakistani border posts. It also noted the numerous threats that the US government had made in public statements, regarding the possibility of unilateral action if it established the possibility of securing (or killing) a “High Value Target” – such as Bin Laden.
The Commission found, after interviewing senior military officials, that these threats were, wrongly, dismissed as being aimed at US public opinion, and even the US incursions did not result in any serious review of defence operating procedures or the designation of the US as a “friendly country”.
The Air Chief Marshall agreed that “the [current] mechanisms for threat identification and assessment and for reviewing the Defence Policy were a weak area”, and said that he had “sought clarity” on how the PAF was meant to engage with the US on the western border.
Such clarity, however, appeared not to be forthcoming.
In the Commission’s view, the military had displayed “an extremely unprofessional and irresponsible approach towards threat identification”. Moreover, due to no review of these policies having taken place, the country remained vulnerable to such attacks in the future, officials conceded to the Commission.
Having interviewed several other top military officers, including those at the Joint Staff Headquarters tasked with advising the government on overall defence policy, the Commission concluded that “both the Defence Policy and JSD seem to have remained fairly static documents, despite tectonic shifts in the strategic and security landscape since 9/11. The very fact that they have not been reviewed since 2004 and 2007 respectively indicates their irrelevance to the current security challenges confronting Pakistan.
“And yet the Commission was told they represent ‘the Bible’ for the armed services of Pakistan. Possibly, like divine scripture they are not supposed to be changed.”
Lack of civilian oversight
In addition the country’s main defence policies being outdated, the Commission also found that the country’s civil leadership had completely abdicated its responsibilities with regard to formulating said policies.
represent “the Bible” for the armed services of Pakistan. Possibly, like divine scripture they are not supposed to be changed”]
Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, then the country’s defence minister, freely admitted that in Pakistan “national security was largely the military’s domain”, according to the report, and that he was largely treated as an irrelevance. He routinely pled ignorance when asked questions by the Commission, deflecting them to the country’s defence secretary, an unelected bureaucrat who is a retired army officer. Indeed, the Commission felt the need several times to remind the minister that he was the head of his department.
He responded to this assertion by saying that the secretary “had vast powers and took all the decisions”, according to the report.
This abdication over defence policy making, or indeed the overall command of the military, was also seen in the Commission’s findings on Pakistan’s approach towards counter-terrorism. It found that there existed no formal, overarching structure for dealing with counter-terrorism – whether on the civilian, military or intelligence fronts – and that, with civilian-run departments such as the police, the Intelligence Bureau, the Federal Investigative Agency and the ministry of interior routinely acting unprofessionally and systematically abdicating their responsibilities, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s premier spy agency, had taken over de facto control of any counter-terrorism operations.
Significantly, it had done so without any legal authority, the Commission said.
In Pakistan, ISI operatives are known among civilians as farishte – an Urdu word for “angels”. The implication is that they are part of an organisation that has over-arching powers and limited, if any, oversight.
This was a view borne out by the Commission’s investigators, who concluded, after interviewing senior officials in the police, IB, FIA, military intelligence and the ISI that, not only did the ISI routinely not share intelligence with the police or other law enforcement agencies, it often acted in contravention of Pakistani law by detaining or arresting suspects within a system where no oversight, judicial or otherwise, existed.
Questioned on this, Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI’s chief, said that his agency had unilaterally assumed the responsibility “in response to the dysfunctionality of the prevailing system and the ineffectiveness of other state organs”, and because “the president of the country so often happened to be the serving Chief of the Army Staff”, an allusion to the more than half of Pakistan’s 65-year history in which it has been ruled by the military.
With regard to the legal protection for the ISI actions, the Commission is of the view that the ISI should stay within the law rather than ask for the expansion of law to legalise its actions.
Pasha conceded the fact that his agency did not have legal authority to arrest people, citing it as a “major problem”, and asserting that such authority should be granted to it. It was a view the Commission did not share.
Moreover, he confirmed that the ISI had “handed over” terrorism suspects to the United States in the past, also a practice for which it has no legal authority.
He also conceded that his agency “preferred to act alone” and not in conjunction with other arms of the state, and he called for those arms, including the police, to be “strengthened”.
“With regard to the legal protection for the ISI actions,” the report notes, “the Commission is of the view that the ISI should stay within the law rather than ask for the expansion of law to legalise its actions. An intelligence organisation does have to operate with a considerable degree of secrecy for it to be effective. But in any democracy, an intelligence organisation must be accountable and answerable to political oversight.” It added that if such legal authority was granted, it would likely lead to “gross human rights abuses”.
On that subject, the Commission noted that the ISI reluctance to cede to civilian control was “unacceptable”, but that an apparent “lack of any interest of the civilian political leadership to exercise such control and oversight is even more deplorable”.
On the subject of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the Commission notes: “At no stage it seems were the prime minister, the cabinet, the Defence Coordination Council, the ministry of interior, the ministry of defence, the civilian intelligence agencies, or the provincial and local authorities actively involved or even regularly briefed. Nor did they take any active and sustained interest in determining whether or not OBL was hiding in Pakistan… There were apparently few if any meetings called specifically for discussions, briefings or updates on the subject.”
In its recommendations, the Commission asserts that it remains essential that civilian and legal oversight over the military be established, through systemic changes.
From a Pakistani strategic doctrine point of view, the world stood still for almost a decade.
It argues that “given the current public perception of the utter degradation of civilian political governance and the historical alienation of military and civilian governments in Pakistan, the revival of the military’s [political intervention doctrine] remains a constant threat”.
Meanwhile, on the subject of the country’s military defence policies, the Commission found that the Defence Policy (2004) and Joint Strategic Directive (2007) were “inadequate” documents.
“From a Pakistani strategic doctrine point of view,” the Commission states, “the world stood still for almost a decade” because policy making was done “on the hoof”. In dismissing US public and private statements about the possibility of launching a unilateral raid on Pakistan under certain circumstances, the report concluded that “the Pakistani military and political leadership displayed a degree of incompetence and irresponsibility that was truly breathtaking and indeed culpable”.
It concluded that there was “an overall policy bankruptcy” in the realm of defence policy for which the civilian and military leadership were equally responsible, and recommended a full review of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, with a particular focus on reshaping what has often “pretended to be a strategic relationship without being one, except for brief durations of overlapping interests in dealing with common challenges”.
It finally stressed the need to “rationalise” what has become a “contingent, transactional and often resentful relationship [with the US] which… neither side has cared to see in the long-term perspective”.
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