IN the end, when they got him, Osama bin Laden was living not, as had been widely supposed, hidden deep in some cave in a remote tribal area. He was in a mansion in the heart of the heavily guarded garrison town of Abbottabad, home to the elite Pakistan Military Academy, the local equivalent of Duntroon or Sandhurst or West Point. A mansion that was so close to the military academy that only a few days before bin Laden was killed, he would have been able to stick his head out a window and hear Pakistan’s top soldier, General Ashfaq Kayani, addressing cadets at a passing-out parade. The former ISI spy agency boss’s message was, paradoxically, that his forces had, despiteWashington’s claims to the contrary, “broken the back” of Islamic militancy, “and Allah willing we will soon prevail”.
Osama’s hide-out —Pic by AFP
The juxtaposition between where bin Laden was living and the proximity of not just the Pakistan Military Academy but also a major Pakistan army base that includes a significant ISI component must inevitably lead to speculation about whether he was there with the connivance of the Pakistani authorities, and why he was not killed or
Pakistan’s beleaguered government, as it battens down the hatches, fearful of revenge attacks, will resent the suggestion of underhand involvement in protecting and providing a refuge for bin Laden. It insists it has done more than its fair share of the heavy lifting in battling terrorism.
But after years of the ISI double-dealing with terrorists and now the revelation that bin Laden was living in the heart of a garrison town virtually next door to the nation’s military academy and only a couple of hours’ drive north of the capital, Islamabad, Pakistani authorities cannot expect to escape the sort of questions that are now being asked.
Such questions have resonated for years and go to the heart of the country’s commitment to fighting terrorism. They date back to its involvement on the side of the mujaheddin, including bin Laden, when it fought to expel the Soviets fromAfghanistanand have lingered ever since. But the questioning has been most intense since 9/11, with theUSproviding $20 billion in aid to the Pakistani military amid growing speculation about the ISI’s links with al-Qa’ida and other terrorist movements.
All the time – under former military dictator Pervez Musharraf and, since 2008, the democratic government headed by president Asif Ali Zardari -Islamabadhas insisted that it is committed to the battle against militancy and that the ISI is not involved in aiding terrorists. But the evidence – now compounded by bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad – has mounted. Only last week it was disclosed in the secret US files that emerged from Guantanamo Bay that US officials had labelled the ISI as a “terrorist” organisation alongside al-Qa’ida, and should be treated as such, which caused outrage in Islamabad.
USemissaries repeatedly went toIslamabadto bang the table about what they believed to be underhanded Pakistani connivance with the militants, particularly the powerful, al-Qa’ida-linked Haqqani network on the Afghan border that was previously believed to be sheltering bin Laden.
In a television interview only a few days ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that “the ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network”.
“That does not mean everybody in the ISI, but it is there,” he added.
As US pressure built up, relations betweenWashingtonandIslamabadsoured, reaching a nadir this year when a CIA contractor attached to theUSconsulate-general inLahoreshot dead several people in a public marketplace and claimed diplomatic immunity after he was arrested.Pakistanwas furious and responded by insisting that some 300 CIA agents in the country, many of them tasked with finding bin Laden, pack their bags and leave.
Conflicting reports last night suggested thatPakistanforces participated in theUSraid that got bin Laden, andIslamabadis likely to make much of this over the next few days as it defends itself against the charges of connivance in sheltering bin Laden.
If Pakistan did in fact play a role, that would not be surprising, for as much as there are undoubtedly elements within the ISI and other branches of the army who are sympathetic to al-Qa’ida and have almost certainly been playing a crucial role in supporting the militants, so, too, are there other elements who support the fight against terrorism.
While leaders of the civilian government may insist that the ISI is firmly under the thumb of the administration and not involved in any double-dealing, as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani did in parliament this week in response to the allegations of terrorism made in theGuantanamoBaydocuments, they know little.
Soon after the current civilian government came to power following the defeat of the Musharraf dictatorship, it tried in vain to assert control over the ISI. It announced its intention to place the spy agency under the control of the current Interior Minister, Rehman Malik.
Within 24 hours, following an outraged response from Kayani, that plan had to be dropped. The spy agency, despite assertions to the contrary, remains firmly under Kayani’s control.
Kayani, indeed, is central to any assessment of how much the Pakistani authorities knew about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
He is a fascinating character, far and away the most powerful individual inPakistan, surpassing even Zardari in terms of authority. He is a Fort Leavenworth-trained professional soldier who has won widespread admiration for the role he has played in supporting the democracy restored toPakistansince the defeat of the former dictatorship.
But those who know him say he is also a staunch military traditionalist in Pakistani terms, seeing the principal threat to his country as being from its long-time sub-continental rival,India. He insists, of course – as he did in his speech on the parade ground at Abbottabad just before bin Laden was killed – that he is in the vanguard of leading the battle against Islamic militancy, that his forces are winning the fight. But the motivation of thePakistanarmy’s – and specifically the ISI’s – double-dealing with the militants has been a long-term view that it takes of its age-old confrontation withIndia.
Their argument is that it would be detrimental toPakistan’s strategic interests ifIndiawere allowed to gain influence inAfghanistan, which it has done under the regime of President Hamid Karzai.Indiais closely allied to Karzai and provides the country with significant amounts of aid. As a counter to this, so the argument runs,Pakistanhas to retain and expand its involvement with the militants, for to end up with a hostile government inKabulwould be a serious blow toPakistan’s strategic interests.
The bottom line is, however, that much as theUSand other western nations may like to believe otherwise, there is inPakistana very significant degree of public support for Islamic militancy and for specific jihadist groups such as al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.
Expect, over the coming days and weeks, to findIslamabadpulling out all the stops to persuade the world that, whateverWashingtonsays, it was valiantPakistanthat delivered up the information that enabled bin Laden to be located, and that it played a vital role in the attack that killed him.
But what about the persistent reports that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and his entire leadership council, known as the Shura, lives and meets regularly in the Pakistani city of Quetta, under the nose of the ISI and the Pakistan army?
Clearly, it is a great victory against terrorism that bin Laden has now been killed. But how much better if he had been killed years ago? How different might the world have been if Pakistani intelligence had targeted him earlier? How many lives might have been saved if global terrorism had been dealt this blow long ago?
Bruce Loudon is The Australian’s former South Asia correspondent and has been visiting and reporting on Pakistan since the 1970s.