The OBL Commission report and our dysfunctional system

We have Al Jazeera providing us access to something that our own government should have been able to do.

Abbas Rashid July 23, 2013
The writer is executive director at Society for the Advancement of Education in Lahore and has written for several publications including Daily Times and The News

We now have it on good authority that the 300-plus page Abbottabad Commission Report making the rounds may well be an earlier draft. Presumably, the final draft is a more toned-down version. But the one that we now have is probably closer to reality and may provide greater insight into what transpired on that fateful night between May 1 and 2. Importantly, it puts into sharp relief the security-related dynamics that undermine our ability to address the major challenge of terrorism that confronts us today.

Not making the report public is itself part of a pattern: the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, looking into what was undoubtedly our darkest hour, could not be shared with the people of this country for decades till it was leaked by an Indian magazine, India Today, in 2000. Twenty-five years on, we still do not have the Ojhri camp report telling us what happened and who was responsible for the blowing up of an ammunition dump in the environs of Rawalpindi and raining missiles on the city as well as on Islamabad. Prime Minster Junejo was shown the door by General Ziaul Haq for wanting to make that report public. And now, more than a year after the Abbottabad Commission completed its work, with no indication of when the report might be released, we have Al Jazeera providing us access to something that our own government should have been able to do, well before now.

The reluctance to share the findings of the report may have to do with the fact that it does not cover any of the relevant parties with glory. But then, a report of this nature is not meant to do so. It is not, after all, a PR release. It should seek to present to the public the immediate, as well as long-term and systemic reasons, as to why a grave act of omission or commission came to pass. In this case, even though the Commission does not fix responsibility for the events surrounding the killing of Osama Bin Laden (OBL) in Abbottabad on any particular institution or individual, it has done a commendable job of identifying the lapses as well as indicating where responsibility rests.

And that brings us to the key question of how did OBL remain undetected for so long. We need a closer look at this, particularly in order to comprehend the existing institutional arrangements which, if they continue as before, will leave us largely undefended against the menace of terrorism that manifests itself on a near-daily basis.

The lack of coordination among the military and civil intelligence agencies emerges as a major issue underlying the ‘intelligence-security failure’ identified by the Commission. Consider the fact that in January 2011, the Bali bomber, Umar Patek, was arrested in Hazara district. The report of his interrogation after arrest was not shared with the provincial authorities. The residence of Abu Faraj alLibbi had been raided at a distance of not much more than a kilometre from the OBL compound, with the civilian agencies remaining unaware. In a telling statement with regard to May 1/2, the DIG police informed the commission that his men were “pushed aside” that night “by a more powerful and capable agency”.

Apart from the issue of collaboration, a key question with serious implications for the nation’s well-being is, who has primary responsibility for counterterrorism? Going by the report, the ISI assumed these responsibilities because no other agency seemed capable of carrying out the task, and not because the government had ever asked it to do so. But how, in any case, can any one agency perform this formidable task without having a close collaborative relationship with other intelligence agencies, including the local police? The OBL case is an illustration of the pitfalls of an arrangement that does not provide for intelligence-sharing as a matter of routine and that requires information to be shared only on a ‘need to know’ basis. It is not clear how the determination of such need is made and at what level.

Eventually, such an arrangement assumes the form of a vicious cycle that mars our ability to develop an effective counterterrorism apparatus: the civilian agencies are ignored, denied resources and politicised; as a result, they have serious capacity issues and this strengthens the argument for not involving them, but the more this happens, the less capable they become and then we are back with the problem of counterterrorism not being something that can be addressed by a single agency, which, in any case, it is not primarily geared for. Meanwhile, in the context of politicisation of civilian agencies, a serious allegation of police complicity in the attack on Ahmadis in Lahore in 2010 certainly needs to be investigated.

So far, as the Commission has noted, the effort to make something of the National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) has come to naught. This has to change. Whatever its name, structure and form, there must be a national or interprovincial platform for the coordination of counterterrorism and intelligence work, at different levels and across provinces. And, it must conform to the principle of civilian supremacy.

What the Commission cites from Ahmad Faruqi’s book should serve as a useful reminder of how we need to define national security in our context: “National security does not reside solely in the military’s combat effectiveness ... the non-military dimensions are political leadership, social cohesion, economic vitality and a strong foreign policy.” In a strategic conflict, military assets are not enough. The four non-military dimensions “may in fact be the decisive ones”.

Postscript: Starting with the many profound insights and implicit policy recommendations made by the Munir report (Report of the Court of Inquiry constituted under Punjab Act II of 1954 to enquire into the Punjab Disturbances of 1953), there have been few exceptions to the rule of ignoring all such reports completely. We will know soon enough if anything has changed even as we stand close to the precipice.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2013.

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Concerned | 10 years ago | Reply

@Sexton Blake, I really hate posting from my phone. The combination of out of control spell check and condensed screen do detract from my efforts. Despite that I think we can agree you are a confirmed skeptic. It seems you believe nothing except that everything is a lie.

Sexton Blake | 10 years ago | Reply

@Concerned: Dear Concerned, Due to spelling and grammatical errors I am not quite sure what you were trying to say except that I am a disbeliever of some kind. For a change you are partially correct, but for the wrong reasons. I do like reasonable evidence in regard to events, but am quite ready to believe a well stated explanation. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Washington have told so many outrageous lies, or obfuscated the issue at hand with a view to confuse so many times over the last 13 years or so that I rarely, if ever, believe them. In particular, if anyone believes that the most wanted man in history was picked up and his body dropped into the sea, so that there was no proof it ever happened, they could quite rightly be accused of believing in the tooth fairy. However, I am not alone as a disbeliever. Apparently the majority of Americans do not believe or do not trust the US Government or the Supreme Court either. You and numbers should consider this as an option instead of blindly believing people who are obviously telling lies, or trying to confuse.

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