The Abbottabad Commission Report: what next?

It is best to be direct in the mode of recommending remedial steps, leave transformational notions to public forums.

Shahzad Chaudhry July 12, 2013
The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

It turned out to be reasonable effort, in the end. The Commission chosen to investigate Pakistan’s May 2, 2011 humiliation, when Osama bin Laden (OBL) was taken out by the US Navy Seals in a daring raid in the hilly city of Abbottabad, began as  a motley group of non-associated professionals assigned to investigate failures, which encompassed, policy, strategy and operational and tactical inadequacies in both conception and response.

They first had to learn what was to be investigated since the entire Neptune Spear raid was built around detailed tactical planning, deep operational comprehension of the time and space dimensions for the operation, and placed at risk serious strategic issues. Intelligence, of all hues, was the elephant in the room and typically, in the tradition of the ‘blind men’, members of the Commission either chose to miss the critical defining parameters that may have carried the blame to someone’s door step, or simply saw it the way any blind man would.

There were three specific failures that needed to be explored by the Commission:

Policy — was the US a friend or a foe; if a friend, why did it choose to take OBL out in a secret raid; how was the raid to be seen in the context of the $7.5 billion aid that Pakistan continued to avail before and after the raid — if indeed the raid was a stealthy attack against Pakistan’s sovereignty, why were we still continuing a relationship and accepting monetary assistance; why was there a widespread anti-American sentiment among the people at large, while the state and its government were variously included as Major Non-Nato Allies and a frontline state in the war against terror; why was there confusion in the minds of the people that Pakistan was fighting America’s war.

Intelligence — how was Osama not detected; how wasn’t he kept track of as he moved from one place to another, hiring houses, getting treated, producing children and surely eating and living, including paying bills, frequent visits by the census guys and the local patwari and the thanedar, perhaps paying some sort of a municipal tax too. Clearly, of the two survival strategies, he chose the one that placed him right before the eyes of all with a greater assurance that that was the last place someone will look as long as he kept his wits about and melded with his surroundings; the other, of course, is to choose a place most difficult to access and breach, simply because everyone would suspect him to be exactly in such a locale. Would he need to be lucky? A lot; in either case.

Military — this was, perhaps, the most technically complex and also the simplest aspect to discern as a failure. First, the easy part: when a superpower chooses to violate a territory in completion of its mission, it will normally do so without a hint of an opposition from a smaller country. If both also happen to be partners in a venture — read war on terror — there is a case for plausible inaction. Despite the infamy of having been ‘violated’, the going joke was what if the American forces had indeed been detected entering the Pakistani territory? Answer: it would have entailed an even bigger dilemma, of both decision-making, and the consequences.

The more complicated part of the inadequate air defence response: with a friendly air force controlling the skies of the western neighbour, the air defence deployment and response was as for peacetime. Perhaps, the best way to understand this paradox of sovereignty and lack of preparedness to defend the western borders is to compare with the need for a car in an emergency. It would be paranoia to keep the car started up at night even as you sleep just because of an apprehension that a need may arise. It would be foolish to do so when you do not foresee the need at all. In case of a threat, the defences are fully deployed and perpetually activated with short-fuse response to initiate action. The air force’s reaction could and should have been quicker, far quicker, except that the decision-making hibernated between the realities of a simple response action, with very complex consequences.

If the report seems short of landing direct blame, other than identifying systemic organisational failures, it directly relates to the absence of such a term of reference, which will invariably ask for “apportioning blame, if any”. But even more importantly, there wasn’t the ‘smoking gun’ that got found. Yes, Osama was the smoking gun, as indeed was the US raid to kill him. But who really was holding the smoking gun when both Osama and the raid happened, has remained a mystery. For Osama, the entire intelligence structure is held responsible, even if chiefly the ISI, and the inability to react appropriately to the raid is a systemic collapse which failed to determine if the US indeed was a friend or a foe. The then DG ISI accepted the blame and offered to resign but was reprieved. Heads should have rolled even if it were as a consequence of internal departmental processes. If indeed this was done, it never was publicly shared.

To the corrective measures then. The recommended restructuring of the security apparatus in the policy domain is well suggested; except that thereon the space has been rather profusely devoted to some ramblings on individually preferred notions of nation building. It is best to be direct in the mode of recommending remedial steps and leave transformational notions to public forums where those must first be debated.

Are we better placed now to handle emergent situations loaded with significant consequences? Perhaps not, and that makes the future dicier than what it was on May 2. Think Ayman alZawahiri. There simply will be no place to hide.

As this aircraft carrier of a state slowly wheels around, there are likely to be a few more hiccups. But it must all begin with the government first taking ownership of the Report.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2013.

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Sulaiman | 9 years ago | Reply

Most worrying issue in all this analysis by our media and probably the entire nation is that "We have reconciled that safety of the country in and out is the responsibilty of ISI and Army only". Police is just meant to lookafter the VVIPs and Parlimanterians who are playing PING PONG with them. We hardly see a police officer at one station for more than 3 months. Who is responsible for all this under these circumstances....... May Allah Guide us

sattar rind | 9 years ago | Reply

If government owned this report what will happened? I think we have lost proper thinking way. We need to recover it 1st.

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