The biggest coup of all

Abottabad compound

On Off the Record tonight, Kashif Abbasi asked Imran Khan of all people why didn’t the president and prime minister know about this operation? The first question to ask is why Kashif asked Imran Khan of all people, as if he would have any way of knowing what goes on behind closed doors at the highest levels. Second, who says the president and PM didn’t know? But what is more interesting is Imran Khan’s response to the question, which appears to be planted, that the operation will have negative consequences that weaken Pakistan Army. I think there might be something to what Imran Khan is saying, but it may not be what it seems at first.

In many ways, the reactions of Osama’s death have been predictable. CNN showed footage of Americans standing outside the White House chanting USA. Burger bacchas whined on Twitter and Facebook. Hamid Mir began reading the Taliban statement on TV. Zaid Hamid reminded everyone of his complete disconnection from reality. And Mushy belatedly became concerned about sovereignty. These were so predictable that it was almost boring to watch unfold.

What has been more interesting to me are the subtle clues to something much more interesting – and much more important – is happening within the ranks. Yes, much of this is speculation, but please let me tell you an alternative read on what has happened. There’s a lot of confusion and contradictory information going around, so let’s slow down for a moment and think about this logically:

1. Osama was holed up in a compound in Abbottabad for over five years, which makes it virtually impossible to believe that intelligence agencies had no idea he was there.

2. The attack was carried out by US special forces who flew in and out of Abbottabad using military helicopters, which makes it hard to believe that GHQ didn’t approve.

So, was the mission carried out as a joint Pak-US operation?

According to the speech of President of the US Barack Obama,

It’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.

This same point was made in the statement released from the Foreign Office today.

In an intelligence driven operation, Osama Bin Ladin was killed in the surroundings of Abbotabad in the early hours of this morning. This operation was conducted by the US forces in accordance with declared US policy that Osama bin Ladin will be eliminated in a direct action by the US forces, wherever found in the world.

Earlier today, President Obama telephoned President Zardari on the successful US operation which resulted in killing of Osama bin Ladin.

Osama bin Ladin’s death illustrates the resolve of the international community including Pakistan to fight and eliminate terrorism. It constitutes a major setback to terrorist organizations around the world.

Al-Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan. Scores of Al-Qaeda sponsored terrorist attacks resulted in deaths of thousands of innocent Pakistani men, women and children. Almost, 30,000 Pakistani civilians lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last few years. More than 5,000 Pakistani security and armed forces officials have been martyred in Pakistan’s campaign against Al-Qaeda, other terrorist organizations and affiliates.

Pakistan has played a significant role in efforts to eliminate terrorism. We have had extremely effective intelligence sharing arrangements with several intelligence agencies including that of the US. We will continue to support international efforts against terrorism.

It is Pakistan’s stated policy that it will not allow its soil to be used in terrorist attacks against any country. Pakistan’s political leadership, parliament, state institutions and the whole nation are fully united in their resolve to eliminate terrorism.

Neither the US nor FO said much about involvement of Pakistan personnel, but both countries spoke of cooperation from the highest levels of government. Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley posted on Twitter:

#Pakistan evidently played an integral part in the #binLaden operation, reinforcing to the #Pakistani people why this is a shared struggle.

As obvious as this seems, we must ask why it is being downplayed by both sides and why media is asking people like Imran Khan why the civilian government didn’t know about the mission when they obviously did. I suspect that the reason is that President Zardari and PM Gilani did know, and that this operation was carried out by civilian government taking command and leaving certain elements of the old establishment in the dark.

From the early days of the present government, civilian leaders have been trying to reign in what are perceived to be out of control elements in the military and intelligence agencies. Recall that in 2008 the government attempted to bring ISI under civilian supervision, only to be rebuffed by GHQ. Despite the PM’s recent remarks that ISI operates under full civilian control, nobody really believes this. But that doesn’t mean that democratic leaders are not still trying to create a new establishment.

It is also widely believed that there are multiple factions within GHQ who are struggling to define the future path of Pakistan military strategy. There is the pro-US group who sees the best results from cooperation  with the West to defeat militants and improve access to global economic markets. There is the pro-China group who thinks the US is yesterday’s ally and wants to concentrate on relations with China’s military as an antidote to Indian military expansion. And then, of course, there is the cold war leftover group who hangs onto to Zia-era ideology of jihad.

Could it be that this operation in Abbottabad was carried out with the cooperation of the civilian government and some elements of the military while keeping the cold warriors in the dark? That’s what it’s looking like to me. This would explain a few things, certainly.

1. Last fall when a US helicopter crossed the border on a ‘hot pursuit’ chase in Upper Kurram, Pakistan soldiers fired at it. In Abbottabad, no soldiers fired on multiple helicopters carrying US special forces.

2. Abbottabad is not Mozang Chungi. It would take more than a Raymond Davis to gather the intelligence needed to orchestrate such a strike, and the idea that this level of intelligence gathering could be done without the cooperation of Pakistani intelligence is hard to believe.

Details are still not known and it’s going to be a while for the full story to come out. But it’s worth trying to figure out logically what the story is here. I don’t know what is going on, but I suspect there is something that is not being said out loud that is far more interesting than what is being discussed on TV. One possibility is that the civilian government and reasonable people in the military have formed an alliance to move beyond the obstacles created by leftover cold warriors and finally settle this war once and for all. This would not be announced so publicly, though, because it has probably ruffled a few feathers and now there are meetings being held to explain this new arrangement.

People love to complain about President Zardari, but he’s managed to get some things right. The 18th Amendment was an important move to undo power consolidation under dictators. But if President Zardari can manage to reconfigure the relationship between the establishment and the government in a way that similarly undoes the damage caused by past dictators, then he will have pulled off the one coup that Pakistan has desperately needed.

One thought on “The biggest coup of all

  1. Good article. The military also probably wants to play it both ways;Not wanting it to be public discourse that it acted under the civilian government while simultaneously taking some form of credit for it( which it really can’t considering how you stated OBL’s been in Abbotabad for 5 years)

    Factions within the military would raise big concerns. Ideologically speaking, there are factions but the institutionalism in the military has been strong enough in the past to prevent that. What the future holds we will have to see.

    Great article once again.

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