They came, they killed and got away with the booty – a perfect display of skill and a brazen projection of power. The midnight operation demonstrated that the Americans won’t sit back until they get what they want.
The Washington narrative at a White House background briefing on May 1, only hours after the operation, is a copy-perfect story of how immaculate intelligence finally led to the surgical elimination of the “sworn enemy of the United States of America” right under the nose of Pakistan Army, which has already been accused of “harbouring and supporting terrorism”. For many, the US has proved Pakistan’s complicity through this operation.
On May 3, CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted in an interview that officials had ruled out informing Islamabad about a planned raid on bin Laden’s compound as they feared their Pakistani counterparts might alert the Al Qaeda chief. “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission: they might alert the targets,” Panetta told a British magazine.
Let us now look at the Pakistani narrative released to the press on May 3, two days after the public humiliation on a global level. Enumerating Pakistani services in the war on terror since 2001, the press release number 152/2011 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also tried to indirectly defend the “inaction” of the security forces against the four US Apache or Blackhawk helicopters, that according to the New York Times had taken off from Jalalabad, refueled at Tarbela Ghazi and went on to Abbottabad to get OBL.
“The Government of Pakistan expresses its deep concerns and reservations on the manner in which the Government of the United States carried out this operation without prior information or authorisation,” said the press release. “US helicopters entered Pakistani airspace making use of blind spots in the radar coverage due to hilly terrain,” it said. “US helicopters’ undetected flight into Pakistan was also facilitated by the mountainous terrain, efficacious use of latest technology and ‘nape of the earth’ flying techniques.”
This argument, if accepted, is fraught with serious implications – that any low-flying objects coming from anywhere can intrude into Pakistani airspace without being detected, and that terrain and technology can blind the world’s seventh largest military. It implies that even Afghanistan and India can get away with such missions.
But an ISI official said that could not happen. “Let the Indians or Afghans try it,” he said.
That means some of those who matter in Pakistan were informed of a US action in Abbottabad at some point. The inaction could also imply Islamabad knew of OBL’s abode and remained silent so it could get rid of him through the Americans. Since the US authorities had given no pictorial evidence of bin Laden’s death, there are questions about whether the world’s most wanted man was actually present in that compound without a large number of bodyguards.
Inconsistencies in the two narratives notwithstanding, Islamabad had probably hoped for a quid pro quo, but it is not likely that the US at all reward Pakistani silence and halfhearted criticism of the “unauthorised action”.
On the contrary, if Mark Grossman’s latest statements in Islamabad were an indicator, “A huge number of questions are headed toward Pakistan, our congressmen would like Pakistan to come clean on these, such as whether it had the knowledge of OBL’s presence in Abbottabad.”
hese questions will likely include whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, Gulbudin Hekmetyar, the Hizb-e-Islami chief, and Jalaluddin Haqqani who leads his own insurgent network in Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s ties with Lashkar-e-Taiba.
And that is why the army and the civil leadership should avoid flimsy explanations and tell the truth to the Pakistani nation, about its helplessness or pragmatism. Pakistanis must know if it was a CIA-ISI joint affair or a unilateral display of power by the US. Admitting that Pakistan authorised the operation will help mitigate Pakistan’s humiliation.