Hours after U.S. Navy SEALs found and >killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, the Pakistan President, Asif Ali Zardari, held a meeting with the Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the Director-General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt.Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. The Pakistani leadership was stunned both by the news of bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan and the fact that the United States had eliminated him on Pakistani soil without the latter’s information or participation.
A statement issued after that meeting by Pakistan’s Foreign Office declared: “Osama bin Laden’s death illustrates the resolve of the international community including Pakistan to fight and eliminate terrorism. It constitutes a major setback to terrorist organizations around the world.”
The very next day, another Foreign Office statement said, “The Government of Pakistan recognizes that the death of Osama bin Laden is an important milestone in the fight against terrorism and that the Government of Pakistan and its state institutions have been making serious efforts to bring him to justice.” The second statement clearly denied prior knowledge of the U.S. operation and insisted that “this event of unauthorized unilateral action cannot be taken as a rule.” It further said, “The Government of Pakistan further affirms that such an event shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the U.S.”
The government’s earliest reaction reflected its first concern: what would the world think of bin Laden being discovered in Pakistan? It was not in Pakistan’s interest to confirm what its critics have always said about Pakistan being a safe haven for international terrorists. No one at the highest levels of government knew anything about bin Laden’s presence or had advance knowledge of the military operation that killed him.
The second response related to fears expressed by some retired generals and television anchors that the clandestine operation against bin Laden had set a precedent that could be repeated by the U.S. and emulated by India. Fears were expressed about similar operations against Taliban leader Mullah Omar or even the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) Hafiz Saeed.
But within a couple of days, the acknowledgement of bin Laden’s elimination as a positive development or being sanctioned by the United Nations had been overtaken by orchestrated rage against American unilateralism. The Pakistani establishment’s worldview of Pakistan as a state under perennial attack took over the national discourse. More important than answering the world’s concern about bin Laden’s presence was the question of why and how the Americans managed to “stab Pakistan in the back.”
The recently leaked Abbottabad Commission report has clearly been written by a group of Pakistani establishment individuals. Apparently the leaked version is one of several drafts and we still do not know the language of the final version. The report makes several valid points. But notwithstanding harsh words about the failings of military and civilian leaders, the report’s authors do not directly confront the issue of Pakistan having become one of the centres of global jihad .
This sidestepping of the most crucial issue facing Pakistan and Pakistanis today is both irresponsible and dangerous.
The report recognises that the military failure to dismantle Pakistan’s “terrorist infrastructure” paved the way for the U.S. violating Pakistani sovereignty though there is no effort to detail the terrorist infrastructure. The report’s focus remains the isolationist Pakistani view that the U.S.’s military action was “an act of war” against Pakistan.
The commission boldly discounts conspiracy theories and concludes that bin Laden was indeed killed in the U.S. raid on Abbottabad. But by asking and answering such questions, the Commission makes it clear that it is addressing domestic Pakistani opinion, shaped by the country’s establishment, not the serious concerns of the international community and many Pakistanis who are faced with daily suicide bombings and sectarian killings, as a result of the strategic depth doctrine.
The international community wanted answers to some hard questions: why was bin Laden able to live in Pakistan for nine years? Who protected him and how? Why, after billions of dollars in international aid ostensibly given to fight terrorism, does Pakistan still remain central to global terrorism networks? Why, after cooperation in arresting several al-Qaeda figures in 2002-2003, do the Americans think they cannot trust Pakistan’s security agencies and had to act unilaterally on intelligence about bin Laden?
Throughout their report, the commissioners reflect their belief in the incompetence of various government personnel and functionaries — both civilian and military. They blame some individuals’ errors of judgement and the weakness of the state for bin Laden managing to hide in Pakistan and for the Americans finding him before the ISI could track him. They talk of the military’s obsession with India and the creation of a jihadi infrastructure. But the commission treads lightly in addressing the jihadi mindset that has been cultivated in the country by its establishment for almost three-and-a-half decades.
The Abbottabad Commission recommends civilian control of military and intelligence institutions, balancing it with suggestions that some civilian leaders may have colluded with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in finding and acting against bin Laden unilaterally.
The commission reflects more on how the people of Pakistan were “outraged” by the “deliberate major violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and seeks to explain how the U.S. could “execute a hostile military mission on a target in a cantonment area” without “any kind of military response.” That outrage seems to drive the authors of the report even where they engage in some much needed self-reflection.
According to a Pew poll administered one month after the killing of bin Laden, 63 per cent of Pakistanis disapproved of his killing and 55 per cent thought it was a “bad thing” he was dead. The real tragedy for Pakistan is this widely held opinion; not the fact that Osama bin Laden was killed by a superpower that ignored Pakistan’s sovereignty in its effort to kill a wanted international terrorist.
(Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, is currently a policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC.)