Past as prologue: The Bin Laden dossier

Long-suppressed report finds Pakistani government was negligent, inefficient, and incompetent in the bin Laden affair.

Bin Laden house - Abbottabad
Robert Grenier spoke to Al Jazeera on the implications of the leak for the US-Pakistan relationship

If there were one, simple conclusion to be drawn from the report of the Pakistani commission established to investigate Operation Neptune Spear – the US raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 – it would be that there are times when things are precisely as they appear. The long-suppressed Abbottabad Commission report has now emerged to provide a timely reminder of a truism which this author learned long ago through hard experience: When seeking to explain negative events, and given a choice between some grand conspiracy and simple incompetence, bet on incompetence every time.

Who would have guessed? Surely, few either in the US or Pakistan were prepared to believe that Osama bin Laden, easily the most wanted man in the world, could have lived for years with multiple wives and many children in the heart of a military town in Pakistan’s settled areas, a mere kilometre from Pakistan’s Military Academy, without anyone in Pakistani officialdom any the wiser.

And yet that is precisely what the Commission found. It is one of the great ironies of this affair that had the planners of the US raid had more faith in the passivity and incompetence of their Pakistani counterparts, they might have been willing to bring the Pakistanis at least partly into confidence and sought their assistance in raiding the compound in question, thus avoiding a huge public embarrassment for the Pakistanis. But the Americans had no such confidence: Faced with the clear risk of official Pakistani complicity in hiding bin Laden, they had no choice but to move against him unilaterally.

There were yet other alleged conspiracies which the Commission report has debunked: How, it was asked, could multiple US helicopters have penetrated some 100 kilometres into Pakistani territory, flying for over an hour each way, conducted a noisy operation in a military cantonment area, actually blown up one of their crippled craft on the ground, and made good their departure without generating any reaction, either from the Pakistani air defence system or by local security forces in Abbottabad? How could the Americans have even hoped to pull this off, without quiet assurances from the Pakistani side? Yet the Commission found that they could, and did. If there were any Pakistani complicity, the Commission could find no evidence of it.

In fact, the Commission summed up its findings concerning the government of Pakistan in the bin Laden affair in three words, reiterated several times: Negligence, inefficiency, and incompetence.

One would have difficulty making a case to suggest that the Commission were somehow trying to protect Pakistani officialdom, indicting their fecklessness to avoid the greater charge of treasonous complicity in a blatant violation of Pakistani sovereignty. No one who reads this report can doubt the fierce independence of its authors, who shrewdly, and amusingly, point out that commissions such as theirs are appointed by governments for one of two reasons: Either because they eagerly desire to catalogue the malfeasance of a previous regime, or because they have no choice but to grudgingly accede to overwhelming public and parliamentary demand for an accounting of their own behavior.

The Commission firmly places itself in the latter category. Given its scathing appraisal of virtually every aspect of the Pakistani government’s performance regarding bin Laden, there is little wonder that the Commission’s handiwork has been suppressed.

Nor does the Commission offer any whitewash for the Americans: Even while expressing understanding for US motivations in pursuing the al-Qaeda leader, it characterises the Abbottabad operation as a blatant act of international murder, with no opportunity given for the Saudi fugitive’s surrender, even under military rules of engagement.

But interesting as its simple conclusions of fact concerning the Abbottabad raid may be, of far greater interest and future relevance are the Commission’s observations concerning the fundamental disfunction at the heart of Pakistan’s relations with the US. In fact, the Commission offers the most clear-eyed and objective view of US-Pakistani relations that this observer has yet seen.

It is, the Commission says:

“….a relationship about which governments in Pakistan have seldom been honest with their own people…It has never been a genuine… or honest relationship. But it is a necessary relationship that needs to be rationalised… and freed from false assumptions. The US and Pakistan may share some policy objectives but there is not a sufficient basis for a strategic partnership between them…Once this is honestly accepted, a healthy, mutually beneficial and important bilateral relationship will become… feasible…The relationship has been based largely on US economic and military assistance to Pakistan on the one hand, and the contingent utility of Pakistan to the US on the other. It is a relationship that is not rooted in a shared culture, political perceptions and strategic interests… [O]ften, it has pretended to be a strategic relationship without being one, except for brief durations of overlapping interests in dealing with common challenges…[T]he conclusion is inescapable that…there has been a shortage of mutual appreciation… and trust in this contingent, transactional and often resentful relationship which…neither side has cared to see in a longer-term perspective….”

The Commission points out that the Pakistani government had every reason to know that the US was prepared to take unilateral action against bin Laden if he were discovered, but had no policy to neutralise the problem or stave off the associated threat: Better simply to react to the Americans as and when necessary, and hope that the problem goes away.

The real scandal exposed by the Commission report is that Pakistani policy toward bin Laden is not an isolated phenomenon, but a symptom of a far larger problem of national governance. The irony is that Pakistan would serve itself, the Americans and the region far better if it would develop, and then articulate a coherent national security policy to which its relations with the US would then be subordinate. A Pakistan willing to openly confront its national challenges would at least present the US with some clear choices. If the US could see a plan and a clear path to Pakistani stability, which it surely sees as in its interests, it might be more willing to subordinate its own short-term objectives to contribute to such a goal.

As the Abbottabad Commission makes plain, Pakistan’s prevailing policy of passivity, obfuscation and wishful thinking is not serving its interests, and is in fact enabling the more self-destructive of US tendencies. The Americans know what they want in south-central Asia; they just don’t have a clue as to how to get it. Forthright leadership from Pakistan would help. But judging from the record of the Commission’s interviews of Pakistani military and civilian officials, both great and small, the chances of proactive leadership in Pakistan are somewhere between slim and none.  

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006. He currently heads ERG Partners, a financial consultancy firm.