ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Monday dismissed as “absurd” American accusations that al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was able to hide in the country due to either an official support network or the ‘incompetence’ of Pakistani authorities.
A simmering verbal backand-forth with the United States made its way into the National Assembly on Monday, as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, in his policy statement on the floor of the house, declared that Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad was a global intelligence failure – not just of his country’s spy agencies.
Nevertheless, he promised investigation into the matter, led by a top army general.
The statement came a day after US President Barack Obama said that Bin Laden had some kind of “support network” within Pakistan which has to be investigated.
The premier rejected the tacit criticism of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence apparatus. “I’ve full confidence in the high command of the Pakistan Armed Forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),” Gilani said.
The fact that Bin Laden was found hiding in Abbottabad has led to accusations that Pakistani security agencies were either incompetent or sheltering the world’s most wanted man.
“We are determined to get to the bottom of how, when and why about Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” he said.
“The allegations of ‘complicity or incompetence’ are absurd,” Gilani said, adding that it was disingenuous for anyone to accuse Pakistan, including the ISI, of “being in cahoots” with the al Qaeda network.
US Navy SEALs carried out a raid lasting less than 40 minutes, killing Bin Laden and seizing a vast haul of data from the compound in Abbottabad on May 2. US officials have already claimed that they did not inform Pakistan about the operation fearing that it could jeopardise the mission.
The prime minister said the US used its technological ability to evade Pakistan's radar system that raised questions about Pakistan's defence capability and the security of the country's strategic assets. He said the Abbottabad episode illustrates that Pakistan's military quickly responded to the American forces' covert incursion.
Regarding domestic criticism that the US raid also raises questions about the safety of Pakistan's cherished nuclear weapons, Gilani said any move against them would be met with “a matching response“.
“Let no one draw any wrong conclusions. Any attack against Pakistan's strategic assets whether overt or covert will find a matching response.“
He said Adjutant-General of Pakistan Army Lt-Gen Javed Iqbal would investigate the matter.
Gilani also bowed to domestic opposition of the US covert action on Pakistani soil, saying: “Unilateralism runs the inherent risk of serious consequences.“ Opposition parties have been criticising the government for its silence over what they are calling a violation of the country's sovereignty by US forces.
He announced an in-camera session of both houses of parliament on May 13 where military authorities would brief the lawmakers on the Abbottabad operation. The opposition agreed to attend the session, saying it will attend only if it is not an “eyewash“ exercise.
The prime minister sought to deflect criticism of Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatus, blaming “all intelligence agencies of the world“ for the failure to locate bin Laden, and declaring: “Pakistan is not the birthplace of al Qaeda.“
In an allusion to US funding for the Afghan mujahidden in the 1990s war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, which ultimately gave birth to the Taliban and al Qaeda, Premier Gilani said it was unfair for Pakistan to take all the blame.
“Collectively, we must acknowledge facts and see our faces in the mirror of history.
Pakistan alone cannot be held to account for flawed policies and blunders of others,“ he said in his speech.
“We did not invite Osama bin Laden to Pakistan or even to Afghanistan. In fact, for the first time, our armed forces were deployed in the Tirah Valley (Khyber Agency) to form a security cordon to interdict al Qaeda during the Tora Bora bombings,“ the premier said.
He was referring to the 2001 US air blitz on the cave complex in eastern Afghanistan where Bin Laden was believed to be hiding.
The prime minister also recounted the contribution of his country in the US-led war against terrorism, saying that 248 al Qaeda operatives, among them senior leaders, had been captured by Pakistani armed forces. “No other country in the world and no other security agency has done so much to interdict al Qaeda than the ISI and our armed forces,“ he said.
“We will not allow our detractors to succeed in offloading their own shortcomings and errors of omission and commission in a blame game that stigmatises Pakistan,“ he said. He said the issue of Bin Laden's hideout needs a rational answer, adding that recrimination and misplaced rhetoric was self-defeating.
The US raid has added to strains in Pakistan-US relations, which were already fragile after a string of diplomatic disputes over issues including a big attack by a US drone aircraft in March and the saga of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore in January.
However, the prime minister tried to dispel apprehensions being voiced about Pak-US ties, saying that Islamabad attaches high importance to its relations with Washington. He said Secretary Hillary Clinton will be visiting Pakistan, but did not say when.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2011.
Correction: May 9, 2011
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the in-camera briefing date as April 13, the date is May 13 and has been corrected.