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Winston Churchill’s famous quote about Stalinist Russia that it is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, could very well apply to the circumstances leading up to the operation to get Bin-Laden, especially to the role of Pakistan in the whole episode. The location of Osama’s hideout – in a veritable military garrison town, a few hours’ drive from the capital ? naturally raises questions about the extent to which Pakistan security apparatus ? specifically ISI ? had been complicit in providing him a sanctuary at a place which could be deemed the safest from the military’s point of view. If one juxtaposes the location of the hideout with the long litany of US publicly and sometimes not publicly expressed suspicion of Islamabad not “doing enough” in denying the “jehadi groups” the safe sanctuaries, the evidence pointing towards the guilt of ISI in OBL hideout seems pretty damning. Or is it as simple as it is made to look on the surface?
Since I am not privy to the classified facts, I am going to make an assessment based on the publicly available and verifiable facts, and assess where they lead. So let me explore the different hypothesis logically in the light of the given, incontrovertible evidence and see what makes the most sense.
Hypothesis 1: Both ISI and CIA were in ignorance about OBL’s hideout, until the brilliant US intelligence work led to his hideout in Pakistan. Then CIA as the US official account maintains acted alone to take him out and only informed the Pakistanis after the mission had been completed or almost completed.
There are two serious problems with this scenario.
First, as Senator Kerry pointed out in his interview with CNN, it would not have been possible for CIA to get the precise intelligence on the hideout without some kind of boots on the ground. And for that to happen, the close co-operation of ISI would have been imperative, admitted as much by Senator Kerry himself. Also it would have been extremely risky almost foolish for Americans to fly four helicopters right into the heart of military garrison without engaging the Pakistanis first. The official US account admits that Pakistan has scrambled jets at some point during the mission, but obviously no interception took place, implying some kind of understanding at the top level.
Second, it is highly implausible that OBL would be hiding as it were in the den of lion without seem kind of tacit assurance as to his protection. It is highly unlikely given the nature of the establishment he was running, literally a stone’s throw from the military academy, and it being fortified and tenants acting oddly – that he would not at least elicit some investigation from the Pakistani intelligence. It does not look plausible that if OBL had been on the run for his life from the ISI and USA, he would chose of all the places in Pakistan, one of its most militarized towns to hide. Therefore, the ISI not knowing his hideout does not seem plausible.
Now based on above it seems that ISI did know about OBL’s hideout, and the final operation against OBL involved the co-operation between US and ISI.
If OBL had been supported in the hideout by Pakistani security establishment, when and how did CIA come to know about it? Was the ISI acting on its own in providing hideout to OBL? What was its motive in doing that? Read on ?
Hypothesis 2: ISI provided the hideout to OBL, without any US knowledge or involvement.
If we establish that OBL was being supported by ISI in his hideout, then the question arises as to the motives for doing that. Why would ISI be supporting the most wanted terrorist in the eyes of the USA and run the risk of inviting the ire of the US? Why when thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting the war in tribal area ? and let there be no doubts about that it was being done under US pressure ? Pakistan nevertheless , would protect the most sought after prize of that whole campaign? Why when Pakistan rounded up and handed over to US hundreds of Al ?Qaida operatives including big names like Khalid Sheik and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, it would run incredible risks to protect the head of the organization? Why would Pakistan which disregarded the potential backlash from local jehadis or domestic opinion or diplomatic compunctions in handing over its own citizens such as Afia Siddiqi and even the Afghan Ambassador to US, nevertheless would take a stand on something with no apparent benefit, but a potential cost of undermining all it has done to aid US in its occupation of Afghanistan?
One can argue that it is not different from Pakistan showing reluctance to go after LET , Jaiseh Mohmmad or the Taliban groups in North wazirstan, all being the instances of Pakistan playing the double game. This argument does not hold water for the simple reason that in all the above cases Pakistan security establishment had in its opinion a very strong rationale for not alienating what it regards rightly or wrongly its strategic assets in occupied Kashmir or post US Afghanistan. There is no equivalent rationale for providing sanctuary to the person most wanted by US compared to the potential cost of inviting the wrath of the “master”.
If one steps back and take in a wider picture, it makes absolutely no sense that Pakistan which had been virtually acting like a client state, fighting US war paying enormous price in both human and economic terms, whose political dispensation and economic policy is largely decided by Washington, nevertheless would defy US on one issue where it hurts most, namely protecting the person at the top of the most wanted list.
Therefore, ISI hiding OBL and duping US does not make a rational sense. It does not fit in with the rest of the evidence.
So what is the alternative then? We have already established that OBL could not be hiding there in Abbottabad without ISI’s knowledge, and it makes no sense that Pakistan security and political establishment which has been towing the US policy on every significant matter, to the point of even not being able to protect the lives and property of its citizens from drone attacks, would nevertheless commit this act of potential hara-kiri by protecting the number one enemy of US! The dispassionate consideration of the facts, no farfetched conspiracy theories, makes the conclusion inescapable that OBL had been the “goose that lays the golden eggs” which was being protected by ISI with the full knowledge and connivance of CIA.
After OBL outlived his utility ? the fear factor has been exploited to the hilt to invade Iraq, sustain campaign in Afghanistan/Iraq etc – at the time which American security apparatus deemed most appropriate for strategic and tactical reasons, they decided to kill the goose which kind of stopped laying the golden eggs. There is a parallel to the fate of Sadam Hussain: he was not removed from the power, but used as a pretext to destroy and bleed the country through sanctions, as a prelude to full scale invasion. At which time it was decided to pull the plug on the asset that had become a liability.
Hammad Said is a software consultant in Portland, Oregon.