The blinding success of the GET-OBL OP by US Special Forces last Monday has raised many critical questions. Was the Pakistani military leadership in the loop? If not, was the national security establishment doodling when two American helicopters were in Pakistani airspace for over one hour? Was the ISI deliberately hiding Osama bin Laden? If not, is it so incompetent that it was unaware of the presence in its own backyard of the most wanted man in the world? What are the repercussions of this incident on US-Pak relations?
The US did not take Pakistan into confidence because it feared the operation could be thwarted by elements in the ISI. This was partly due to the manifest distrust and tensions between the CIA and ISI in recent times over several issues, most notably the refusal of the Pak military to take action against the Haqqani network and LeT in North Waziristan, and the unpleasant, long drawn out Raymond Davis affair. It was partly due to the natural suspicion that OBL couldn’t be so brazenly living in Abbotabad without the ISI’s protection. These factors persuaded the Americans to go it alone – since 9/11, this is the first time that a joint operation against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s urban areas was ruled out, despite such joint-ops having netted over 20 top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the basis of standard operating procedures (SOP – CIA Intel to identify target + Pak ground forces to raid and capture).
Two American helicopters took off from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in the dead of night, at about midnight. They were bristling with Navy Seals for combat and sophisticated electronics to evade radar. They weaved in and out of valleys, hugging rooftops as they arrived undetected at the targeted compound in Abbotabad. One helicopter hovered over the target while the other looped off briefly to check out a similar compound nearby that seemed to be some sort of security installation. Then two Stun bombs were chucked at the target, which went off like two big bangs, knocking out the occupants of the compound without crushing or destroying the building. Rope ladders were unfurled and Navy Seals with sophisticated body armour and night vision weapons were lowered down at critical points of attack and defense. One of the helicopters was hit with fire from the compound and forced to land. The Seals stormed the compound, killed three men and one woman, shot dead OBL, scooped up incriminating material, tied up the three remaining women, and scrambled aboard one functioning helicopter with OBL’s corpse and his son. The helicopter took off, stopped at some distance, turned around and fired a missile at the helicopter on the ground and destroyed it. Then it looped over and headed towards Bagram Air Base. During this time, a gathering of the US High Command in the Situation Room in the White House in Washington watched the operation live, thanks to cameras and mics on the helicopter in the air that were linked to the Seals on the ground. “Geronimo EKIA”, Enemy Killed In Action, went out an excited voice to the White House, where it was received with shouts of joy and relief.
Shortly after reports of a helicopter mishap in Abbotabad hit the media around 1.20 am, not so far away in Rawalpindi, the DG-ISI was woken up by a phone call about a crashed helicopter. He called his people to ask: “Is it ours?” After a brief check, he was told, “no sir, it’s not ours”. He called up DG-MO. “Is it yours?” After a brief check he was told, “no sir, it’s not ours”. He called up his boys and told them to rush to the scene of the incident. He also called up the COAS General Kayani to brief him. The COAS called up the top military man in Abbotabad who ordered forces to rush to the area. The COAS also called up the PAF Air Chief. The Air Chief checked, explained that radar hadn’t picked up any intruders, and ordered two F-16s to scramble. When the ISI team arrived at the compound, they reported the burning wreckage of the chopper and the markings on its fin. They reported three dead men and one woman. They reported a wounded woman who spoke Arabic and halting English, and two other women who were unharmed. They noted there were sixteen children aged six to eight years approximately. The woman said she was OBL’s wife, along with two other women, and confirmed that OBL and his family had been living in the compound for six years. She said the Americans had attacked them, killed OBL and taken his corpse. Soon thereafter, the army arrived to seal off the area and whisk away the occupants and dead bodies in the compound.
Around 3 am, Admiral Mullen called General Kayani, and CIA chief, Leon Panetta, called DG-ISI, General Pasha. They explained the nature of the operation and why it had been kept a secret from them. President Obama called President Zardari at 7 am to acquaint him with the facts. They thanked the Pakistanis for providing the initial clues that led the CIA to the compound. What was this piece of information?
Sometime in 2009, an ISI wiretap picked up a conversation in Arabic between a Sim card in Nowshera and another in Saudi Arabia. The conversation was brief and hinted at financial matters. This transcript was passed on to the CIA for processing. Three months later, in 2010, the same Sim woke up to another conversation in Arabic, this time from Peshawar to Saudi Arabia. Again, the transcript was passed on to the CIA. There were four other occasions that year when the same Sim was used, once from a location in Waziristan and the last one actually from the compound in Abbotabad, and all the transcripts and location details were passed on to the CIA. The ISI took the view that its Intel apparatus was focused on the Pashto or Punjabi speaking Taliban in FATA and elsewhere in the country and Arabic speaking Al-Qaeda terrorists were the responsibility of the CIA.
Meanwhile, the CIA analysed the transcripts and followed all the clues until the last one led them to the compound in Abbotabad. When the CIA homed in on it in February via ground and satellite surveillance in 2011, it was convinced that a very high value target was living in it, possibly OBL. They found it unbelievable because of its location in the military’s backyard. The consensus view was that an exclusive and secret operation should be launched to get their man because the ISI couldn’t be trusted with a joint operation. The CIA just wasn’t sure whether the ISI was hiding OBL because it was the ISI that had provided the lead to the Sim card and transcripts that led the CIA to the compound in Abbotabad.
This explains two statements made by senior US officials. President Obama said the operation benefited from “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan’s Intel agencies that led the CIA to the compound in which OBL was living”. The CIA chief said they couldn’t mount a joint operation because they didn’t want leaks in the ISI by rogue elements to jeopardize it. The Americans worried about a botched operation but took the decision to go ahead. After the event, top US officials like Hilary Clinton and Senator John Kerry have stressed the cooperation between the two sides and said it would continue unabated despite hiccups and misunderstandings and even any conflict of interest in some areas. They have evaded the issue of any direct link between OBL and the ISI because focusing on it would derail the strategic dialogue and create manifold problems for both sides. They cannot explain why, if the ISI was hiding OBL, the ISI gave Intel tips to the CIA that led its operatives to the compound in the end. Still, they are encouraging the US media and Congress to keep the pressure on Pakistan to explain how and why OBL came to be holed out in Abbotabad for six years without the knowledge of the ISI.
Meanwhile, angry or confused Pakistanis are also asking some tough questions from the Pakistani military high command. Why wasn’t the Pak security establishment able to detect and stop an American incursion into its sovereign space? How come OBL was in a safe compound in the military’s backyard, especially since another terrorist, Omer Patek, an Indonesian, was flushed out from Abbotabad only two months ago in a joint ISI-CIA operation? What will the military do in the event of another boots-on-ground US operation in Pakistan, either in Waziristan or in any urban area of Pakistan that violates Pakistani sovereignty? Will there be any accountability of those who are responsible for one of the most embarrassing and problematic moments in Pakistan’s history?
ISI sources say the agency is over stretched and short of resources required for the job. They also worry about the fallout of any domestic or international incident whose footprints lead to the murky past in the ISI’s history when it created and sustained non-state actors with whom it claims to have cut links today.
How was OBL able to live in Abbotabad without being discovered? The ISI’s answer is no different from the one that the Americans and Indians give when they are asked how the terrorists got away with 9/11 or Mumbai? Intelligence failure on a grand scale. Will this wash with the friends and foes of Pakistan? What if there is further evidence from the CIA in time to come that implicates the ISI in an even more dangerously provocative manner? Will there be a catharsis in the national security establishment to mend its ways? Will there be accountability?