The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: In Pakistan, many questions and few answers

The extraordinary and dramatic killing of America’s Most Wanted Man has brought confusion, embarrassment, triumph, regret and a resounding cold shoulder to the Pakistani people from the international community. A senior Pakistani diplomat told me, "Maybe it’s time to accept that, in great power games, we don’t matter." This comment could be a public relations ...


The extraordinary and dramatic killing of America’s Most Wanted Man has brought confusion, embarrassment, triumph, regret and a resounding cold shoulder to the Pakistani people from the international community. A senior Pakistani diplomat told me, "Maybe it’s time to accept that, in great power games, we don’t matter." This comment could be a public relations exercise to wash Pakistan’s hands of any responsibility for Osama bin Laden’s death and the ensuing militant backlash. But it’s clear that a solo operation on Pakistani soil by U.S. Navy SEALs is a reality check for unassuming citizens who have let the Pakistani Army’s budget fuel theirs and the army’s delusions of grandeur.

It’s hard to blame Pakistanis for the utter bewilderment they are experiencing after the death of bin Laden. Pakistan’s leaders seem dumbfounded by the whole operation, and a lack of a coherent public message from the government, the military, and the intelligence service the ISI has only hindered the average Pakistani’s desire to find a defensible position on the issue. Pakistanis are left with many questions and few answers.

How could the world’s most wanted man be hiding around the corner from a Pakistani military academy? If Osama bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad, a mere two hours’ drive from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, without the ISI’s knowledge, it was a criminal stroke of genius on his part. Hide where the drones don’t fall and where they’ll never think to look. The bigger the house the fewer questions asked. Wealth in Pakistan serves as its own boundary wall between the privileged and the law.

How could the Army not have known and/or engaged foreign forces conducting combat operations within Pakistan’s borders? The same senior Pakistani diplomat told me, "Pakistanis are just unaware of the U.S. military’s capabilities." If this is the case, then the American military machine has immeasurable might, or the Pakistan Army has short arms and deep pockets.

Why wouldn’t America share the information about the upcoming raid with the Pakistani Army so that the U.S.’s own fairly high-risk operation was not compromised by Pakistani forces? Would the Pakistan Army refuse an operation against bin Laden? Probably not, but Pakistan could conceivably request to mount their own operation to take him out. One reason the Americans did not take Pakistan into confidence was concern that the Pakistani Army could not be trusted with this information. The Pakistani Army would have had too much to answer for to the U.S. if members of it were irresponsible with details about the raid, and bin Laden escaped.

How could bin Laden have been located without Pakistani intelligence? Common sense tells us that he couldn’t have been. Even if Pakistan’s government pleads ignorance on all counts, it is inconceivable that the United States could have located this target without some prior form of help from the ISI. And if this is indeed the case, then one has to concede that the ISI would not share intelligence on a terrorist they are secretly trying to harbor.

Every retired Pakistani military man I have spoken with thinks that ISI/Army members must have been clued in to the operation or bin Laden’s location, but likely at the most five to ten people were in the know. If the Army knew anything, it was likely only at the highest levels — Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ISI chief Major General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and their closest lieutenants — and in that case the suggestion that Pakistan’s government as a whole was somehow "sheltering" bin Laden does not make much sense because Pakistan would have sold bin Laden if they had him to begin with, in exchange for some national respect from the U.S. A possible Pakistani pitch to the U.S. could have been: we have bin Laden in our sights; you take him out, absolve us of responsibility, you get the victory, and we don’t have to deal with the militant blowback at home. The continued campaign of drone strikes in the tribal areas compromises Pakistani sovereignty, but a one-time raid may be easier to sell and forget. The issue here is the concern that Pakistan’s double game will leave it with nothing but a backlash from both the international community and the militants. But if you find Osama bin Laden in your own front yard, you don’t really have much room for negotiation.

In the off chance that the ISI did not play a part in locating bin Laden in Abbottabad, but had some intelligence on him, what would the Pakistani military establishment gain from harboring a man like Osama bin Laden? Is he a "strategic asset" the way the Haqqani network or the Quetta Shura is believed to be? No.

A main difference between Osama bin Laden and the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani network was that bin Laden did not possess a network of fighters, was not indigenous to the land despite ties cultivated possibly through marriages, and above everything else was more of a symbol of jihad than an operational influence. Pakistani military officials have told me before that the reason why the Haqqanis and the Quetta Shura may serve as assets is because they possess vast networks and will still be around long after the Americans leave Afghanistan. If Pakistan wants to exercise ‘strategic depth’ in what they may assume will be a protracted battle for power in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves, then they want to back the men whose main interest is power in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden’s goals were megalomaniacal, stretched over continents, and completely incompatible with the idea of negotiations. The Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura are insurgent groups, or bands of terrorists by most accounts, but potentially both could get their feet in the door for negotiations in Afghanistan. Taking all this into consideration, it is hard to see how Pakistan could have considered Osama bin Laden a strategic asset the way the Haqqani network or Quetta Shura are presumed to be for the Pakistani military establishment.

What if Pakistan really didn’t know anything? If that’s the case, then that is a bitter pill for Pakistanis to swallow and heads should roll in the establishment. The Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani has already stated that an inquiry is to take place. If the Army and ISI are found to be completely ignorant they can and should be held accountable. Worldwide attention on such an inquiry bears the possibility that a government usually impotent in front of the military could actually hold the military accountable for once.

At the moment, nobody in the Pakistani security establishment is willing to provide answers to Pakistanis. Pakistanis want to know if the ISI tipped the Americans off; they want to know if the ISI harbored a terrorist; they want to say that Pakistanis helped in the operation, either operationally or with prior intelligence, or that some kind of deal was struck with the United States. What they don’t want to hear is that their country knew nothing. That leaves them without a position to defend, although if there are any people that can defend the indefensible, it’s the Pakistanis. Many Pakistanis just want to be able to have a national stance on the issue and say, "These are the facts and these are our opinions on the matter." But, alas, it is likely we won’t get any of the inside facts soon, if we ever do.

Shaheryar Mirza has a masters in journalism and public affairs from American University in Washington D.C. and works as a reporter for Express 24/7 in Karachi, Pakistan. Follow him on twitter @mirza9.