Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pakistan's Military Tries To Explain Itself

Stung by the embarrassment of the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on Monday, Pakistan's powerful military establishment is under pressure to make changes in its relationship with key allies, and in its fight against terrorism. After three days of sedulous silence on the matter, the military and intelligence leadership on Thursday shared its perspective on the Abbottabad debacle with a select group of senior Pakistani journalists — no foreign news media were invited. The rare closed-door briefing was prompted by a desire to challenge an emerging global narrative that incriminated Pakistan's security establishment in bin- Laden's ability to elude capture, according to some of those present. (See pictures of Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hideout.) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani reiterated at the briefing that Pakistan had not been informed of the raid until it was over. The first communication from the U.S. was a phone call at around 5 a.m. Pakistan time from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. Kayani congratulated Mullen on the mission's success, but pleaded that President Barack Obama should refrain from "negative remarks" about Pakistan in his planned address — and was pleased that Obama's live TV announcement avoided criticizing Pakistan. Kayani's first indication of the raid came earlier, however, with the news of a helicopter crashing and exploding, which was covered by local news media in Abbottabad. The general knew it wasn't a Pakistani helicopter: "We don't fly at night," he told reporters gathered at the military's headquarters in Rawalpindi. Kayani picked up the phone and ordered his airforce to " scramble the jets". Pakistani military analysts say an order to scramble jets is an authorization to shoot down anything in the sky. But by the time two F-16 s had reached the scene, the Americans had left. Kayani responded to Pakistani concerns over how the U.S. helicopters had entered Pakistani airspace undetected by attributing it to technological advantages. (See "As Pakistan Please Incompetence, Tougher Questions Go Unanswered.") The most damaging accusation against the Pakistani military, of course, is that it must have known bin Laden's was hiding in the small garrison town where army personnel at frequent checkpoints demand identification. "They knew. They knew he was there," wrote Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida, echoing the suspicion of many Pakistanis. Kayani had driven past bin-Laden's bolt- hole literally a week earlier, on his way to tell a gathering at the military academy that the "Pakistan army is fully aware of internal and external threats." Kayani was adamant that the Pakistanis had no idea that bin-Laden was hiding in Abottabad. "We had no clear, actionable information on Osama bin-Laden," he told the journalists. "If we had it, we would have acted ourselves. No one would have questioned our performance for ten years. It would have raised our international prestige." Kayani's argument is supported by some senior Western diplomats in Islamabad, who say that there is no conclusive evidence of Pakistani complicity. Nor have Washington's statements alleged complicity, despite suspicions. Diplomats do not rule out the possibility that junior intelligence officers may have been involved, however. Instead of focusing on whether Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent, the explanation may lie in its lack of focus or effort. In recent years, Pakistan has chiefly concentrated on the threat from the Pakistani Taliban, to the neglect of those posed by al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. The Abbottabad area, Kayani told the briefing, had been of interest to Pakistan's security establishment since at least 2004. There was no suspicion involving the compound, however, and he emphasized that intelligence gathered had been diffuse. Suspicions about Abbottabad were first raised when intercept equipment picked up phone calls in Arabic to Saudi Arabia, concerning finances. That information, Pakistan's military leadership says, was shared with the U.S. At some point, the CIA shutdown its communication with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). "No intelligence agency shares 100 % of its intelligence" with another country, said Kayani, himself a former ISI chief. (See an animated video of the U.S. raid on bin Laden.) Kayani said that in his ISI role, he was responsible for tracking down Faraj al-Libi, a senior al- Qaeda member who lived in Abbottabad in 2003 and was arrested the following year in Mardan. Western diplomats and analysts say that Pakistan' s success in capturing several al-Qaeda members have been driven by U.S. intelligence. Al- Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, and Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, were all seized in joint operations. When it came to bin Laden, however, U.S. officials feared that cooperation could compromise the operation. While Pakistan's foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, had earlier in the spoken of " strategic convergence" between Islamabad and Washington, Pakistan's intelligence chief chose to be less emollient. Sitting near Kayani, Lieut. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha — recently included in the TIME 100 — said that despite extensive mutual assistance between the CIA and the ISI, Pakistan had made its interests clear to Washington. And, Pasha said he had made clear to Washington that if the U.S. is deemed to be acting against Pakistan's interests, "We'll not help you, we'll resist you." The consensus among diplomats and analysts is that the bin-Laden debacle will compel Pakistan's military leadership to demonstrate a greater commitment to fighting al-Qaeda. Pakistani leaders have said that they will neither tolerate, nor can they afford, further similar raids, for example to seize al- Qaeda number 2 Ayman al- Zawahiri or Taliban leader Mullah Omar. That said, it is fair to assume that the ISI will seek to avoid that possibility by intensifying their own efforts to find bin Laden's deputy. Yet, at the same time, Pakistan can be expected to assert itself in ways that Washington will not like. Embarrassment over bin- Laden's presence in Abbottabad notwithstanding, the Pakistani security establishment is angry at what it views as the first U.S. invasion of a nuclear-armed ally. It fears that neighboring India may be smiling at the vulnerability demonstrated by the American raid, and the resulting indignity is hard to swallow. The Army has decided to "reduce the strength of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan to the minimum essential," it said in a statement on Thursday. At the closed-door briefing, Pasha indignantly claimed that his own ISI was on the verge of being " outnumbered" by foreign agents. Still, the bin-Laden episode limits the security establishment's room to maneuver in several ways. (See why the U.S. won't break up with Pakistan.) Until now, Pakistan's civilian government has sat silently by watching the military make the key decisions on national security and foreign policy, and even extend their control of certain sectors of the economy. A public long accustomed to muffling its criticism of the army has largely acquiesced. Now, for the first time in several years, many are prepared to openly blame the Army for a humiliation some are comparing to the fall of Dhaka in 1971 , when Pakistan lost control of what is now Bangladesh. Suddenly, the civilian government looks more resilient. And the military is not only in trouble with Washington, but also with another key ally, Saudi Arabia, which will not be pleased that its most determined enemy was found in Pakistan. The raid in Abottabad has produced a moment of rare vulnerability in a military establishment that had long been Pakistan's strongest power center.