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Osama bin Laden and the failure of the Pakistani state

Washington: The Abbottabad Commission’s report on Osama bin Laden’s nine years of living comfortably in Pakistan can be summed up thus: All systems failed and repeatedly.

The exhaustive 336-page report is a strong indictment of the entire government machinery – from the all-powerful ISI and the military to the lowly beat policeman and revenue officer – for ignoring multiple clues as the world’s most wanted terrorist shifted homes, made babies, managed multiple wives and their travels through the country. And Pakistan’s civilian leaders seemed oblivious through it all, exercising neither mind nor authority.

Osama Bin Laden entered Pakistan in the spring or summer of 2002 and seamlessly glided through cities, using local support networks to take care of his large family. He even hosted Khalid Sheikh Mohammad – the mastermind of 9/11 attacks – and his seven children before Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was nabbed.

Reuters

Osama Bin Laden in this screengrab photo. Reuters

Apparently, Osama was a frugal man. He owned only six sets of salwar-kameez and paid a paltry salary of Rs 9,000 a month to his guard and life-line, Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti, who ultimately was tracked by the CIA. For energy, he ate chocolate and apples. But he believed in stocking gold. One of the wives complained the Americans walked off with a jewelry box of 20 gold biscuits of 10 tolas each and a purse containing his will.

Strange details of Osama’s private life aside, the commission report does a bit of a delicate dance on the reasons why he was able to hide in plain sight.

On the all-important question of whether it was incompetence or complicity by that ISI that OBL managed to live unharmed, the commission says it was “more a case of negligence, inefficiency and incompetence rather than complicity.”

The choice was a political necessity perhaps, and it was made for the country by the military-ISI combine in the aftermath of the US raid that killed Osama on 2 May, 2011. They would rather be branded as shoddy than colluders.

The other “political” diversion is the bristling condemnation of the CIA for establishing vast networks of informants, violating Pakistan’s sovereignty and generally not giving respect where it is due. The visceral hatred of the Americans comes through. It seems the ISI believed “the main agenda of the CIA was to have the ISI declared a terrorist organisation.”

The commission also goes to some lengths to cite international legal opinion, including many Americans, on how killing an unarmed Osama was against the laws of conflict.

Ignoring the huff and the puff, the commission has done a service by laying bare the non-working innards of Pakistan where each agency thinks the other (mainly the ISI) is doing the job. Even after the US raid, the local police chief did not establish control on the crime scene. There seem to be no procedures and zero clarity on the mandate of various agencies.

The report raises many good questions, which indirectly but adequately hint at ISI’s collusion to hide Osama Bin Laden. The most important is the appearance and arrest of the Bali bomber Umar Patek in Abbottabad in January 2011. Why was he there? The commission got no answers from the ISI save the blasé: Patek was on his way to Afghanistan to be a martyr. However, the members note acidly that Abbottabad “does not lie on the usual routes to Afghanistan.”

Did the ISI not interrogate Patek (highly unlikely) or they knew and did not alert the local police because they were protecting Osama? There is enough in the report to show how the ISI repeatedly and conveniently left many high value targets alone when it knew and could have sent the local administration after them. If it wanted to.

Former ISI chief, Shuja Pasha’s explanations of ISI failures are self-serving – he pleaded his organisation is “overburdened” because it is filling too big a vacuum created by an absence of political leadership.

For the most part, the commission members don’t buy his line. They even ridicule the ISI for stopping the search for Osama because the bosses thought the US had done so. It shows “both naivete and its lack of commitment to eradicating organised extremism, ignorance and violence which is the single biggest threat to Pakistan.”

The commission also bluntly calls out the army for dominating national life since the “dark era of General Zia ul Haq left Pakistan with the poisoned legacy of criminal, violent, ideological and anti-national infrastructure of extremism.”

Such words will ring hard in GHQ. And they should. All roads seem to lead back there. The report can be a good weapon in the hands deft leaders.