Pakistan's Military Tries to Explain Itself

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Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

Pakistani army soldiers keep guard on May 5, 2011, outside the compound in Abbottabad where U.S. Navy Seal commandos reportedly killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden

Stung by the embarrassment of the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad late Sunday night, May 1, Pakistan's powerful military establishment is under pressure to make changes in its relationship with key allies and in its fight against terrorism.

After three days of sedulous silence on the matter, the military and intelligence leadership on Thursday, May 5, shared its perspective on the Abbottabad debacle with a select group of senior Pakistani journalists — no foreign news media were invited. The rare closed-door briefing was prompted by a desire to challenge an emerging global narrative that incriminated Pakistan's security establishment in bin Laden's ability to elude capture, according to some of those present.

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani reiterated at the briefing that Pakistan had not been informed of the raid until it was over. The first communication from the U.S. was a phone call at around 5 a.m. Pakistan time from Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kayani congratulated Mullen on the mission's success but pleaded that President Barack Obama should refrain from "negative remarks" about Pakistan in his planned address. He was pleased that Obama's live TV announcement avoided criticism of Pakistan.

Kayani's first indication of the raid came earlier, however, with the news of a helicopter crashing and exploding, which was covered by local news media in Abbottabad. The general knew it wasn't a Pakistani helicopter — "We don't fly at night," he told reporters gathered at the military's headquarters in Rawalpindi. Kayani picked up the phone and ordered his air force to "scramble the jets." Pakistani military analysts say an order to scramble jets is an authorization to shoot down anything in the sky. But by the time two F-16s reached the scene, the Americans had left.

Kayani responded to Pakistani concerns over how the U.S. helicopters had entered Pakistani airspace undetected by attributing the entry to technological advantages.

The most damaging accusation against the Pakistani military, of course, is that it must have known bin Laden was hiding in the small garrison town where army personnel demand identification at frequent checkpoints. "They knew. They knew he was there," wrote Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida, echoing the suspicions of many Pakistanis. Kayani had driven past bin Laden's bolt-hole literally a week earlier, on his way to tell a gathering at the military academy that the "Pakistan army is fully aware of internal and external threats."

Kayani was adamant that the Pakistanis had no idea that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. "We had no clear, actionable information on Osama bin Laden," he told the journalists. "If we had it, we would have acted ourselves. No one would have questioned our performance for 10 years. It would have raised our international prestige."

Kayani's argument is supported by some senior Western diplomats in Islamabad, who say that there is no conclusive evidence of Pakistani complicity. Nor have Washington's statements alleged complicity, despite suspicions. Diplomats do not rule out the possibility that junior intelligence officers may have been involved, however. Instead of focusing on whether Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent, the explanation may lie in its lack of focus or effort. In recent years, Pakistan has chiefly concentrated on the threat from the Pakistani Taliban, to the neglect of those posed by al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

The Abbottabad area, Kayani told the briefing, had been of interest to Pakistan's security establishment since at least 2004. There was no suspicion involving the compound, though, and he emphasized that the intelligence gathered had been diffuse. Suspicions about Abbottabad were first raised when intercept equipment picked up phone calls in Arabic to Saudi Arabia on the subject of finances. That information, Pakistan's military leadership says, was shared with the U.S. At some point, the CIA shut down its communication with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. "No intelligence agency shares 100% of its intelligence" with another country, said Kayani, himself a former ISI chief.

Kayani said that in his ISI role, he was responsible for tracking down Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a senior al-Qaeda member who lived in Abbottabad in 2003 and was arrested the following year in Mardan. Western diplomats and analysts say that Pakistan's success in capturing several al-Qaeda members has been driven by U.S. intelligence. Al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh and Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar were all seized in joint operations. When it came to bin Laden, however, U.S. officials feared that cooperation could compromise the operation.

While Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir had earlier spoken of "strategic convergence" between Islamabad and Washington, Pakistan's intelligence chief chose to be less emollient. Sitting near Kayani, Lieut. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha — recently included in the TIME 100 — said that despite extensive mutual assistance between the CIA and the ISI, Pakistan had made its interests clear to Washington. Pasha said he had made clear to Washington that if the U.S. were deemed to be acting against Pakistan's interests, "We'll not help you — we'll resist you."

The consensus among diplomats and analysts is that the bin Laden debacle will compel Pakistan's military leadership to demonstrate a greater commitment to fighting al-Qaeda. Pakistani leaders have said that neither will they tolerate, nor can they afford, further similar raids — for example, to seize al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri or Taliban leader Mullah Omar. That said, it is fair to assume that the ISI will seek to avoid that possibility by intensifying its efforts to find bin Laden's deputy. At the same time, Pakistan can be expected to assert itself in ways that Washington will not like.

Embarrassment over bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad notwithstanding, the Pakistani security establishment is angry at what it views as the first U.S. invasion of a nuclear-armed ally. It fears that neighboring India may be smiling at the vulnerability demonstrated by the American raid, and the resulting indignity is hard to swallow. The U.S. Army has decided to "reduce the strength of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan to the minimum essential," it said in a statement on Thursday, May 5. At the closed-door briefing, Pasha indignantly claimed that his own ISI was on the verge of being "outnumbered" by foreign agents. Still, the bin Laden episode limits the security establishment's room to maneuver in several ways.

Until now, Pakistan's civilian government has sat silently by, watching the military make the key decisions on national security and foreign policy and even extend its control of certain sectors of the economy. A public long accustomed to muffling its criticism of the army has largely acquiesced. Now, for the first time in several years, many are prepared to openly blame the military for a humiliation some are comparing to the fall of Dhaka in 1971, when Pakistan lost control of what is now Bangladesh. Suddenly, the civilian government looks more resilient. And the military is in trouble not only with Washington but also with another key ally, Saudi Arabia, which will not be pleased that its most determined enemy was found in Pakistan. The raid in Abbottabad has produced a moment of rare vulnerability in a military establishment that had long been Pakistan's strongest power center.