Opinion: Was Pakistan duplicitous or incompetent?


Pakistani military and police officials cordon off a street leading to the final hideout of Osama Bin Laden in Abboattabad on May 9, 2011. Pakistan announced an official probe into the question of how bin Laden could live in a garrison city.


Aamir Qureshi

BOSTON — In the confusing aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death many questions remain, but chief among them is: What did Pakistan know? When did it know it?

When the news first came through of the Abbottabad raid, and after U.S. President Barack Obama had congratulated Pakistan for its help, I thought Pakistan must have had a hand in the operation. It would be too difficult to fly helicopters in from Afghanistan without getting caught, and much too politically and militarily risky for Obama to give the go-ahead to such an incursion without Pakistan’s advice and consent.

It appears that wasn't the case. The U.S. says it never tipped Pakistan off that the SEALs were on their way, and Pakistan officials appear to agree. The U.S. didn’t trust Pakistan not to warn Osama in time for him to get away.

I also thought it inconceivable that Osama bin Laden could have lived in the Pakistani equivalent of West Point without at least some elements of the Pakistani security services knowing about it. On this point I am still betting I’m right.

There is another narrative. Global Post has reported that Pakistan’s support was in fact asked and given, and that Osama’s neighbors were told by Pakistani soldiers to stay indoors and keep the lights off that night before the helicopters came. Could Pakistan have said: "OK, come in and get Osama, but we are going to have to say we didn’t know about it because it is such a violation of our national sovereignty?"

But the damage done to the Pakistani military’s reputation seems to me far worse as it stands now than it would have been had it known and cooperated in the bin Laden raid. As it is Pakistan looks either duplicitous or incompetent, and maybe both.

The question of who in Pakistan’s security services would benefit by harboring Osama bin Laden is another troubling question. The bargain had always seemed to be: Pakistan will help us capture Al Qaeda Arabs — and indeed many were caught with Pakistan's help — but it is a different matter when it comes to us telling Pakistan what it must do against its own citizens in its own tribal territories. Our version of what needs to be in a post-American Afghanistan, and with whom we need to deal to achieve our goals, is not identical to Pakistan's version, according to Pakistani leaders.

But Pakistan deliberately harboring Osama bin Laden would take matters to an entirely different level of antagonism. It seems to me that harboring bin Laden would be such an offense to America that it could only hurt Pakistan, and have little relevance to the future of Afghanistan.

But then not everyone in Pakistani intelligence talks to everybody else, any more than our CIA and FBI cooperated closely before 9/11. And the Pakistani security establishment is far more fractured than our own.

The terrorist raid on Mumbai, that was planned and launched from Pakistan, may shed light on the Osama affair. From Pakistan’s point of view, such a raid risked a disastrous war with India from which Pakistan could not possibly benefit.

Yet the raid went ahead, probably without the knowledge of the top Pakistani brass, but with some help from within Pakistan. The organization responsible, Lashkar-e-taiba, was originally organized to bedevil India in Kashmir, not attack hotels deep inside India. Yet, once Pandora’s box was opened, the creatures that emerged could not be completely controlled.

An American equivalent would be if the Nicaraguan Contras, whom the United States organized to bedevil those whom we considered Soviet surrogates in Central America, had gone on to attack hotels in Russia and risk war with the Soviet Union.

Or to take an actual example: What if groups that we helped raise to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan started attacking us? That is exactly what has happened.

Another troubling thought: What if there are people in Pakistani intelligence who are true believers, and wanted to keep Osama safe for his own sake without their bosses or the Americans knowing about it? After all, several of the assassination attempts on Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf had to have been inside jobs, just as India’s Indira Gandhi was killed by her own bodyguards.

It seems safe to say that, within Pakistan, there are elements that are working against America’s interests just as there are those who are helping us. It was never realistic to say, as former U.S. President George W. Bush said, you are either with us or you are with the terrorists. That was never true in his own country, and could never be true in Pakistan.

The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is far too complicated for Bush-like simplicities. We like to say the Pakistanis are playing a double game, fighting the Pakistani Taliban but harboring some Taliban who are killing us in Afghanistan. But the game with America and Pakistan is multi-layered and complex beyond anything that could be described as double.

And speaking of working against one’s own interests, American politicians who call for cutting off aid to Pakistan seem to forget that 80 percent of our Afghan war supplies come through the Pakistani port of Karachi. When the Pakistanis closed the Khyber Pass last fall, to send us a message about military incursions on their soil, I passed the hulks of many burned-out, sitting-duck oil tankers by the side of the road to Peshawar, oil that was supposed to fuel our war effort. Pakistan could close down the Afghan war if it so chose.

Meanwhile, an illuminating fact remains in this still unfolding and disturbing story. In all the years that Osama bin Laden was on the run, no matter how large the price on his head for anyone who would betray him, nobody ever did.