Osama Bin Laden’s escape from the Tora Bora mountains in Eastern Afghanistan in December 2001 to his last refuge in Abbottabad raised many questions. Some of them have been answered by the Abbottabad Commission, whose report was leaked to Al Jazeera last week, but others are still open. How was the world’s most wanted person living in that same house for all those years undetected? Why did Bin Laden fascinate certain people and groups in Pakistan who blew holes in the security apparatus to protect him and his family for so long? Who from within the security establishment provided him safety despite Dr Ayman al Zawahiri’s calls for Pakistani civilians and soldiers to revolt against the government.
The Abbottabad Commission failed to find answers to these questions, and explained the security breach as the outcome of a combination of factors including incompetence, poor coordination among various arms of the security apparatus, the propensity to compromise national interest for personal gains, and possible collusion at local intelligence, army and police levels.
Without confronting the intractable puzzle of whether there was official complicity in sheltering Bin Laden, let me recount some of my own experiences that support some of the commission’s conclusions.
While researching for my book Pakistan: Before and After Osama in the last quarter of 2011, I had already reached these conclusions, primarily based on my interactions with police and intelligence officials in Abbottabad, Peshawar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
During a meeting with a senior intelligence official responsible for the Hazara region, I asked him why his outfit failed in detecting the presence of the Al Qaeda leader.
“We are not allowed to intrude into certain areas,” he said, referring to Bilal Town where Bin Laden’s compound was located. “Who has barred you from doing so?” I asked. He blamed it on military intelligence outfits. “We are only a reporting agency.” This was one of the several meetings I had had with him and apparently he was only shifting the blame. “But what do you report on?” I quipped. “We report on activities of foreign organizations,” he responded. “Do your people know which foreign entities – such as aid organizations – worked in Abbottabad until Bin Laden’s elimination?” He was blank for a moment, and then pulled out a list of foreign NGOs operating in Abbottabad that his boys had sent him. The list also included the name of SUNGI, the veteran Pakistani NGO that has been in existence in the Hazara region for over two decades.
Some time in early 2011, an intelligence official in Islamabad approached my colleagues to ask about a foreign media team visiting Pakistan. He was stunned when he was told they had left a month ago after some meetings, including with army officials in Rawalpindi.
Former spymaster Gen (r) Ahmed Shuja Pasha also admitted such institutional shortcomings and failures before the commission. Not only did he take a dig at former army chief Pervez Musharraf, but also at the political leadership and the media for their ignorance, indifference and lack of a culture of reading.
Pasha said journalists were also found involved in the US vilification campaign against the ISI, and many of them were bribed with “money, women and alcohol”.
Regardless of what motivated Pasha’s statement that nearly everyone in Pakistan could be bought, he did hit the core issue – Pakistan’s history is replete with examples where judges, generals, journalists, jurists and development sector activists preferred personal relationships over larger community or national objectives.
An extremely well-placed lawyer, for instance, told me that he defended a businessman because “the president told me to do so”. Similarly, a number of armed forces officials, including those with long careers with the ISI or MI, chose to join either US defense or intelligence outfits or their contractors for higher monetary gains. Ironically, most of these officials, who had served at extremely critical positions until they opted for retirements, often derided the media, development sector activists and politicians for “selling the country in return for dollars”.
Not all is black and white of course, in a complex world driven by geo-political considerations and defined by geo-commercial interests of the multinational corporations of the US and Europe locked in fierce competition. But the Abbottabad Commission’s findings are a useful guide for course correction. Identifying inherent systemic weaknesses, professional incompetence, indifference to merit and disregard for collective interest for petty personal gains, the commission has urged all power centers to improve coordination, give merit and professionalism a chance, and to correct things at home before pointing fingers at outsiders. Stop externalizing your own failures and revamp the entire governance and security structures. Let us hope this message is not lost on those who matter.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India