After a tense period of silence from officialdom and a lot of media debate the Pakistan government finally reacted on Tuesday to the daring US military operation in an upscale neighbourhood of the garrison city of Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The al Qaeda kingpin had been on the run since his escape from the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan in 2001.
It took Pakistan’s foreign policy wizards over 36 hours to put together their side of the story. In a lengthy statement, the Foreign Office denied on Tuesday that Pakistan had any prior knowledge of the airborne assault. However, it did admit that Islamabad had been sharing intelligence with the Americans about the fortified compound where Bin Laden had been holed up since 2009.
According to the statement, the Pakistan Air Force had scrambled warplanes within minutes of the operation, but there was no engagement as the US special forces had already left Pakistan’s airspace.
At the same time, Pakistan has hit out at the US over the operation, saying “unauthorised unilateral” action could threaten international peace. “Pakistan expresses its deep concerns and reservations on the manner in which the government of the United States carried out this operation without prior information or authorisation from the government of Pakistan,” it said.
It said such “unauthorised unilateral action” cannot be taken as a rule and said it should not become “a future precedent” for any country. “Such actions undermine cooperation and may also sometimes constitute threat to international peace and security,” it added. The Foreign Office also rejected as “false and incorrect” media reports claiming that the US helicopters involved in the raid had taken off from the Ghazi airbase. “No base or facility inside Pakistan was used by US forces nor the Pakistan Army provided any operational or logistic assistance,” said the statement.
It said that the US military choppers entered Pakistan’s airspace by making use of blind spots in radar coverage caused by hilly terrain.
According to the statement, Abbottabad and the surrounding areas had been under surveillance since 2003 resulting in the highly technical operation by the ISI in 2004 which had led to the capture of a senior al Qaeda leader.
As far as the compound is concerned, the ISI had been sharing information with the CIA and other intelligence agencies since 2009, the statement said. “The intelligence flow indicating some foreigners in the surroundings of Abbottabad, continued till mid April 2011.”
“It’s important to highlight that taking advantage of superior technological assets, the CIA exploited this intelligence to identify and reach Bin Laden – a fact also acknowledged by the US president and secretary of state.”
About the whereabouts of Bin Laden’s family, the statement said all of them were in safe hands and being looked after in accordance with law. “As per policy, they will be handed over to the countries of their origins,” it added.
The statement also attempted to address one of the main questions: How Bin Laden could manage to live unnoticed located a few hundred yards from the elite military training academy?
“It needs to be appreciated that many houses occupied by the people affected by operations in Fata or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have high walls, in line with their culture of privacy and security,” the statement said.
The FO defended the ISI and the military for their achievements in the US-led war against terrorism’. “The Pakistan Army and intelligence agencies had played a pivotal role in breaking the back of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Pakistan and around the world,” it said.
However, Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington promised a “full inquiry” into how Pakistani intelligence services failed to find Bin Laden in the fortified compound.
“Obviously Bin Laden did have a support system, the issue is that is the support system within the government and the state of Pakistan or within the society of Pakistan?” Hussain Haqqani told CNN in an interview.
“We all know that there are people in Pakistan who share the same belief system and other extremists … so that is a fact that there are people who probably protected him,” he said. “We will hold a full inquiry into finding out why our intelligence services were not able to track him earlier.”
“What I find incredulous is the notion that somehow, just because there is a private support network in Pakistan, the state, the government and the military of Pakistan shouldn’t be believed,” Haqqani said.
With additional input from Wires
Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2011.