As the debate rages over how much Pakistan knew about Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts, a series of cables show how its leaders repeatedly told the US that while they wanted to help find the terrorist, they didn't know where he was. ( Watch ) Across the world, questions are being raised - most pointedly in America - about how the world's most-wanted man was eventually hunted down to a house a stone's throw from Pakistan's military academy. "This is going to be a time of real pressure" on Pakistan "to basically prove to us that they didn't know that bin Laden was there," said Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman on Tuesday morning. The Pakistan cables reflect the repeated denials by Pakistan about housing Osama and America's increasing wariness with those explanations. A distrust that is obvious before Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani's week-long visit to America in February 2009. On February 19 , US Ambassador Anne Patterson wrote to Washington, insisting "US needs to lay down a clear marker that Pakistan's army/ ISI must stop over or tacit support for militant proxies such as the Haqqani network... and the Lashkar-e-Taiba." Ambassador Anne Patterson went on to say, "The single- biggest message Kayani should hear in Washington is that this support must end." Ms Patterson also offered this advice, "We should praise Kayani's support for the civilian democratic government in Islamabad, re- iterate the long-term US commitment to support Pakistan." She also stressed, " We should press for Pakistani prosecution of the Mumbai suspects." (Read: Pakistan cable on Kayani visit to Washington) General Kayani also made it clear to the US that his army was doing its best to locate Osama and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now expected to take over as the leader of Al- Qaeda. In a meeting on January 9 , 2008 , the Pakistani Army Chief met with Joseph Lieberman. The Senator asked about the search for Osama and al-Zawahiri. Ambassador Anne Patterson's cable states "It was unjust to criticise Pakistan for not locating these men, asserted Kayani, and he would place Pakistan's track record in pursuing and capturing Al-Qaeda operatives up against any other country's. " (Read: Pakistan cable on Lieberman-Kayani meeting) But in April 2007 , then President Musharraf is reported as acknowledging that Osama may be in Pakistan. A cable dated April 10 , 2007 , from the embassy's Charge d'Affaires Peter Bodde reports on a meeting between Senator John McCain and Mr Musharraf. The President allegedly said that he believed Osama and Ayman al Zawahiri - the man who many believe will replace Osama as the head of Al-Qaeda - were " hiding in Bajaur agency. Since it was in Afghan militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's territory and bordered Afghanistan's Kunar province. Mr Musharraf said that the landscape in videos of the two men looked similar to Bajaur, and the area provided "high mountains... and an absence of US troops in neighbouring Kunar." (Read: Pakistan cable on Musharraf meeting with John McCain, Richard Renzi) A year later, the Prime Minister of Pakistan contradicted General Musharraf. On April 17 , 2008 , a cable refers to a meeting between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Michael Capuano, William Pascrell and Frank LoBiondo. Mr Gilani was asked where he believed Osama was hiding. The cable says the Prime Minister replied, "The intelligence agencies have no idea, but he' s not in Pakistan". (Read: Pakistan cable on US Representatives' visit to Islamabad) A point Mr Gilani made again a few weeks later with visiting Senators Carl Levin and Robert Casey. On May 25 2008 , Senator Levin asked if the Pakistani government knew where Osama was. Mr Gilani and his Defence Minister, Kamran Rasool, stressed that while they didn't know Osama' s coordinates, they were doing their best to cooperate in the hunt for the Al-Qaeda leader. Mr Rasool cited an incident where the US had sent a photo to Pakistan of a man it thought may have been Osama. Mr Rasool said his country's forces had followed the person who did not turn out to be bin Laden. "The point, noted Rasool, was that Pakistan had acted swiftly when given information by the US," recalls a cable dated June 6 , 2008. (Read: Pakistan cable on Gilani's meeting with US Senators Levin and Casey) In November 2008 , a cable reports on a meeting between America's top-most general, David Petraeus and President Asif Zardari, who said that Pakistani forces had not spotted Osama. On November 3 , referring to the war on terror, Mr Zardari assured the General, "We intend to finish the job, defeat is not an option." The cable states, " Zardari said he would not mind paying the price for high-value targets but it did not appear Osama had been in our sights lately. " (Read: Pakistan cable on Petraeus' meeting with Zardari) The General highlighted that he had specially chosen Pakistan as his first foreign stop after taking over as head of the US Central Command. The Pakistani President said he needed to create a middle class to fight extremism. "The Taliban," he said, "can outpay my soldiers," the cable states.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
A middle-aged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East – died in Pakistan yesterday. And then the world went mad.
Fresh from providing us with a copy of his birth certificate, the American President turned up in the middle of the night to provide us with a live-time death certificate for Osama bin Laden, killed in a town named after a major in the army of the old British Empire. A single shot to the head, we were told. But the body's secret flight to Afghanistan, an equally secret burial at sea? The weird and creepy disposal of the body – no shrines, please – was almost as creepy as the man and his vicious organisation.
The Americans were drunk with joy. David Cameron thought it "a massive step forward". India described it as a "victorious milestone". "A resounding triumph," Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted. But after 3,000 American dead on 9/11, countless more in the Middle East, up to half a million Muslims dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and 10 years trying to find Bin Laden, pray let us have no more "resounding triumphs". Revenge attacks? Perhaps they will come, by the little groupuscules in the West, who have no direct contact with al-Qa'ida. Be sure, someone is already dreaming up a "Brigade of the Martyr Osama bin Laden". Maybe in Afghanistan, among the Taliban.
But the mass revolutions in the Arab world over the past four months mean that al-Qa'ida was already politically dead. Bin Laden told the world – indeed, he told me personally – that he wanted to destroy the pro-Western regimes in the Arab world, the dictatorships of the Mubaraks and the Ben Alis. He wanted to create a new Islamic Caliphate. But these past few months, millions of Arab Muslims rose up and were prepared for their own martyrdom – not for Islam but for freedom and liberty and democracy. Bin Laden didn't get rid of the tyrants. The people did. And they didn't want a caliph.
I met the man three times and have only one question left unasked: what did he think as he watched those revolutions unfold this year – under the flags of nations rather than Islam, Christians and Muslims together, the kind of people his own al-Qa'ida men were happy to butcher?
In his own eyes, his achievement was the creation of al-Qa'ida, the institution which had no card-carrying membership. You just woke up in the morning, wanted to be in al-Qa'ida – and you were. He was the founder. But he was never a hands-on warrior. There was no computer in his cave, no phone calls to set bombs off. While the Arab dictators ruled uncontested with our support, they largely avoided condemning American policy; only Bin Laden said these things. Arabs never wanted to fly planes into tall buildings, but they did admire a man who said what they wanted to say. But now, increasingly, they can say these things. They don't need Bin Laden. He had become a nonentity.
But talking of caves, Bin Laden's demise does bring Pakistan into grim focus. For months, President Ali Zardari has been telling us that Bin Laden was living in a cave in Afghanistan. Now it turns out he was living in a mansion in Pakistan. Betrayed? Of course he was. By the Pakistan military or the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence? Quite possibly both. Pakistan knew where he was.
Not only was Abbottabad the home of the country's military college – the town was founded by Major James Abbott of the British Army in 1853 – but it is headquarters of Pakistan's Northern Army Corps' 2nd Division. Scarcely a year ago, I sought an interview with another "most wanted man" – the leader of the group believed responsible for the Mumbai massacres. I found him in the Pakistani city of Lahore – guarded by uniformed Pakistani policemen holding machine guns.
Of course, there is one more obvious question unanswered: couldn't they have captured Bin Laden? Didn't the CIA or the Navy Seals or the US Special Forces or whatever American outfit killed him have the means to throw a net over the tiger? "Justice," Barack Obama called his death. In the old days, of course, "justice" meant due process, a court, a hearing, a defence, a trial. Like the sons of Saddam, Bin Laden was gunned down. Sure, he never wanted to be taken alive – and there were buckets of blood in the room in which he died.
But a court would have worried more people than Bin Laden. After all, he might have talked about his contacts with the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or about his cosy meetings in Islamabad with Prince Turki, Saudi Arabia's head of intelligence. Just as Saddam – who was tried for the murder of a mere 153 people rather than thousands of gassed Kurds – was hanged before he had the chance to tell us about the gas components that came from America, his friendship with Donald Rumsfeld, the US military assistance he received when he invaded Iran in 1980.
Oddly, he was not the "most wanted man" for the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001. He gained his Wild West status by al-Qa'ida's earlier attacks on the US embassies in Africa and the attack on the US barracks in Dhahran. He was always waiting for Cruise missiles – so was I when I met him. He had waited for death before, in the caves of Tora Bora in 2001 when his bodyguards refused to let him stand and fight and forced him to walk over the mountains to Pakistan. Some of his time he would spend in Karachi – he was obsessed with Karachi; he even, weirdly, gave me photographs of pro-Bin Laden graffiti on the walls of the former Pakistani capital and praised the city's imams.
His relations with other Muslims were mysterious; when I met him in Afghanistan, he initially feared the Taliban, refusing to let me travel to Jalalabad at night from his training camp – he handed me over to his al-Qa'ida lieutenants to protect me on the journey next day. His followers hated all Shia Muslims as heretics and all dictators as infidels – though he was prepared to cooperate with Iraq's ex-Baathists against the country's American occupiers, and said so in an audiotape which the CIA typically ignored. He never praised Hamas and was scarcely worthy of their "holy warrior" definition yesterday which played – as usual – straight into Israel's hands.
In the years after 2001, I maintained a faint indirect communication with Bin Laden, once meeting one of his trusted al-Qa'ida associates at a secret location in Pakistan. I wrote out a list of 12 questions, the first of which was obvious: what kind of victory could he claim when his actions resulted in the US occupation of two Muslim countries? There was no reply for weeks. Then one weekend, waiting to give a lecture in Saint Louis in the US, I was told that Al Jazeera had produced a new audiotape from Bin Laden. And one by one – without mentioning me – he answered my 12 questions. And yes, he wanted the Americans to come to the Muslim world – so he could destroy them.
When Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, I wrote a long article in The Independent, pleading with Bin Laden to try to save his life. Pearl and his wife had looked after me when I was beaten on the Afghan border in 2001; he even gave me the contents of his contacts book. Much later, I was told that Bin Laden had read my report with sadness. But Pearl had already been murdered. Or so he said.
Yet Bin Laden's own obsessions blighted even his family. One wife left him, two more appeared to have been killed in Sunday's American attack. I met one of his sons, Omar, in Afghanistan with his father in 1994. He was a handsome little boy and I asked him if he was happy. He said "yes" in English. But last year, he published a book called Living Bin Laden and – recalling how his father killed his beloved dogs in a chemical warfare experiment – described him as an "evil man". In his book, he too remembered our meeting; and concluded that he should have told me that no, he was not a happy child.
By midday yesterday, I had three phone calls from Arabs, all certain that it was Bin Laden's double who was killed by the Americans – just as I know many Iraqis who still believe that Saddam's sons were not killed in 2003, nor Saddam really hanged. In due course, al-Qa'ida will tell us. Of course, if we are all wrong and it was a double, we're going to be treated to yet another videotape from the real Bin Laden – and President Barack Obama will lose the next election.
In Kabul, the news of Osama bin Laden's death has, more than anything, brought questions. Questions about what the end of al-Qaeda's leader means to the ongoing war and the Taliban's launch of a new fighting season. But most importantly, it has raised resounding questions about the nature of Pakistan's cooperation in the "war on terror". "They didn't find Osama in Logar, they didn't find him in Kandahar," declared Afghan president Hamid Karzai. "They didn’t find him in Badakhsahn, in Kabul or in Parwan. They found him in Abbotabad, in Pakistan," he said. Although president Karzai made sure he included a word of appreciation for the sacrifices of NATO and the United States, the frustration in his tone was clear. " NATO and the world did not hear our call for ten years," he said. "We burned and burned. Osama was killed in Abbotabad." The town of Abbotabad, where Mr bin Laden was killed, is home to Pakistan's military academy. According to Hassan Abbas, professor of South Asian politics and security at Columbia University who lived there in the early 1980 s, there is a security zone of about 5 km around the academy, where surveillance is high. "The house was only about two miles from the military academy, clearly within the security radius," Mr Abbas told Al Jazeera. In recent times, military installations in particular have been the target of frequent attacks by insurgents and terrorist groups. "This should have been more reason for increasing security around the military academy, and the house should have been checked, given the high walls and barbed wire," said Mr Abbas. Afghan-Pakistan relations In his reaction to the death, Karzai - and his government - has made sure to stress the proximity of the town to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The tone in his speech yesterday was reminiscent of the early years of the "war on terror", when the Karzai government assiduously criticised the Pakistani military establishment - particularly the ISI - for not doing enough to go after al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Frustrated and exhausted by the fact that his allies could not assert enough pressure on Pakistan, Karzai reconsidered his approach in recent years. He stopped publicly criticising Pakistan and instead tried reaching out to them in the hope of finding a regional solution to the war. Yesterday, while Karzai spoke of the Pakistani people's suffering due to terrorism, there was nothing in his speech about the Pakistani government. Instead, he used the opportunity to recall his old message that had not received the attention he might have wanted it to. "I hope that, from now on, the United States and the West take what the people of Afghanistan say as a truth," he declared. Ali Ahmad Jalali, former interior minister in Karzai's cabinet, said the killing of Osama was "a wake up call" to Pakistan. "The proximity of the house to Islamabad shows that Pakistan can do much more in this war," he said. Challenges remain Some analysts believe that the nature of Osama's killing provides an ample opportunity to shift the focus once again to Pakistan. It is time that Pakistan's "state- sponsored terrorism", as one analyst put it, is dealt with more decisively, they say. "We should utilise this momentous achievement to address the remaining challenges," Dr Davood Moradian, former senior policy adviser to the Afghan foreign minister, told Al Jazeera. "To this end, the ISI must be declared a terrorist entity." While his conclusion might seem extreme, he and many others point to the threat that a nuclear-armed Pakistan presents when its intelligence agency has been reluctant in going after terrorist groups. "We eliminated the most important and symbolic person in the phenomenon of terrorism," says Mr Moradian, "but the three important factors are still out there: the ideology, the infrastructure and the conducive environment." He believes that, unless the international community deals with ISI's relationship with groups such as al-Qaeda, the threat will remain. "If not, the international community will have to come back next time, as was the case in 2001. " However, it is unlikely that the Karzai government will dramatically change its current relationship with Pakistan, which has been a major factor in their formula for reconciling with the Taliban. "His death might bring a wave of revenge attacks on Afghans and security might deteriorate," says Hawal Alam Nooristani, a member of the High Council for Peace, the group designated to explore talks with the Taliban. "But what this proved was that Pakistan’s two- faced politics has yet to end." The impact of the death on the war Many in Afghanistan believe that the killing of Osama, though a huge morale booster for NATO and its allies, will not have much impact on the on going war in the country. In recent years, bin Laden had been mostly preoccupied with avoiding capture. In the process, much of the work had been delegated to his subordinates. "This is a psychological victory," says former minister Jalali, "but operationally, it will not have much impact. Al Qaeda is more decentralised and Osama really wasn't in charge recently," he says. Others point to the fact that, in recent years, al-Qaeda has played a small role in Afghanistan and local armed groups have dominated the insurgency. "That the leadership of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan is only half of the reality," says Dr Mahiudeen Mahdi, a member of the Afghan parliament from the northern province of Baghlan. "The daily threat inside Afghanistan has almost always been from the Afghan Taliban." Sanjar Sohail, publisher of the prominent daily newspaper 8- Subh, agrees that Osama's death will have an important "psychological impact" on al-Qaeda and groups who follow their ideology. But Sohail is concerned that the dramatic death will fast-track a hasty withdrawal out of Afghanistan. "Already, there are calls from Iran and Pakistan that the United Sates has no excuse to be in Afghanistan anymore," says Mr. Sohail. "Also, president Karzai's comments indicate that he is not interested in continuing this fight in Afghanistan." The death of Osama comes at a time when the Afghan government has intensified its efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban. Some believe that this presents an opportunity for the Taliban to distance themselves from al-Qaeda on the basis that their relationship was with Osama bin Laden and not al-Qaeda's ideology. President Karzai, by virtue of calling on the Taliban a further time in the same speech that he announced the death of Osama, has shown the government's interest in tapping this opportunity. Whether some Taliban will take that up or not, only time will tell. "I guess the Taliban are now trying to figure out how to position themselves," says Martine van Bijlert, the co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network. " They will want to use the mobilising potential of bin Laden's death, but they will also want to leave their position vis-a-vis al- Qaeda sufficiently ambiguous to keep all future options open." Sohail thinks that the Taliban might begin presenting "green lights" to keep the government interested. "They will want a gradual desensitisation of their image in the public perception by 2014 ," which is the scheduled date for NATO withdrawal. But in the short term, the death of Osama is unlikely to affect the intensity of the war in Afghanistan. "I suspect that the violence this summer will continue at a similar pace as might have been expected before bin Laden's death," says Alex Strick van Linschoten, co- author of An Enemy We Created, the forthcoming book on the Taliban's ties with al-Qaeda. He has lived in Kandahar for the past few years. "It is perhaps significant, though, in offering Obama a chance to recalibrate US operations inside Afghanistan." Mr Mahdi, however, is concerned about how Karzai might use this in his "desperate" efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. "Karzai has been trying to promote the idea that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are separate entities," he says. "I am afraid this presents his government with an opportunity to hide the Taliban from the world view."