Monday, May 2, 2011

Finger of suspicion at Pak military for protecting bin Laden

The finger of suspicion is pointing squarely at the Pakistani military and intelligence for sheltering and protecting Osama bin Laden before US forces hunted him down and put a bullet in his head on Sunday. The coordinates of the action and sequence of events suggest that the al-Qaida fugitive may have been killed in an ISI safehouse.

Within hours of the news of bin Laden's killing, speculation raged about Pakistan and its spy agency's role in the momentous episode. President Obama made it clear that the operation to hunt down bin Laden was conducted exclusively by US forces -- ''a small team of Americans,'' he said -- at his direction. While he thanked Pakistan's civilian government for its help, naming President Zardari in particular, he made no mention of any other active Pakistani role, especially in the operation. It was "all-American" and "Made in USA," he seemed to say.

But in a glaring counter-narrative, Pakistani security officials claimed bin Laden was nailed in a joint operation between CIA and Pakistani forces. "It was carried out on a very precise info that some high-value target is there," one Pakistani official was quoted as saying.

US analysts uniformly suggested this was clearly aimed at ducking charges of the Pakistani military's possible role in hiding bin Laden. ''This is hugely embarrassing for Pakistan,'' was a common refrain on US TV channels throughout the night.

In fact, top US officials have openly suggested for months that the Pakistani military establishment was hiding bin Laden. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came closest to publicly exposing Pakistan's role last May when she accused some government officials there of harboring Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

''I am not saying they are at the highest level...but I believe somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Taliban are,'' Clinton said on May 10 last year, adding, ''We expect more cooperation (from Pakistan) to help us bring to justice capture or kill those who brought us 9/11.''

Taken together with President Obama's pointed 'thank you' to President Zardari and leaving out any mention of Pakistani forces' involvement, it would seem that Washington believes that Pakistan's military intelligence establishment, including the ISI, was sheltering bin Laden. The ISI was accused as recently as last week by the top US military official Admiral Mike Mullen of having terrorist links, and named as a terrorist support entity by US officials, according to the Guantanamo cables.

Lending credence to the charges is the fact that US forces homed in on bin Laden in Abbottabad, which is a cantonment just 50 kms from Islamabad, where the Pakistani military has a strong presence. The place where bin Laden was killed is only kilometers from the Kakul military academy, where many Pakistani military elites, including some of its ISI cadres, graduate from.

While US officials are tightlipped about precise details, analysts are trying to figure out whether the compound that sheltered bin Laden was an ISI safehouse. There is also speculation as to whether Hillary Clinton was referring to this when she made her pointed remarks last May.

US officials have said for years that they believed bin Laden escaped to Pakistan after the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan. But Pakistani officials, including its former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, insisted that he was in Afghanistan, even as Afghan officials would angrily refute it and say he is in Pakistan. In the end, the Americans and Afghans were right on the money.