According to American journalist Seymour Hersh, the official story of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden is a lie that “might have been written by Lewis Carroll”. Ironically, it is Hersh’s version that is actually much more dotted with rabbit holes than Obama’s. Which is correct? Some will accept one or another at face value, depending on whether or not it confirms what they would like to believe. In fact, reading Hersh’s report one quickly gets the feeling that he was eager to believe anything that would weave a blockbuster story to boost his reputation. I will not take the time to note every problem with Hersh’s story as this has already been done by others, rather, I want to note something that has not been pointed out that should be very troubling for any Pakistani who wants to believe his tale.
Seymour Hersh’s version of events (or rather Gen Durrani’s version, since that is what Hersh seems to be telling) does a service to the Army by removing the uncomfortable question that has been lingering since day one: Was ISI incompetent or complicit in hiding bin Laden? According to Hersh’s report, “bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006” and “ISI was using bin Laden as leverage against Taliban and al-Qaida”. According to his version, “ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him”. In other words, CIA was the incompetent agency that couldn’t find bin Laden and ISI was the competent agency who did. Also, ISI was not complicit in hiding bin Laden, they were using their prisoner as part of counter-terrorism operations.
Leaving aside the obvious problems with this theory, it’s easy to see why Gen Durrani or someone else might think this sounds like a really good version of events. It reinforces the narrative that ISI is “rated the number one intelligence agency in the world”. Problems arise, however, with the issue of why all of this had be done in secret if ISI were the real heroes.
According to the Hersh/Durrani story, ISI was the most competent and anti-terrorist agency on the planet. “Keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism” is how they are described. And who are the Muslim fundamentalists that they are keeping at bay? They are us.
It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army publicly disgraced.
This should be enough to give any Pakistani reason to suspect the Hersh/Durrani story. In order for it to be true, we have to accept that Pakistan Army is terrified of the Pakistani people who are overwhelmingly pro-terrorism, and that Army must keep its anti-terrorist activities secret unless the people will rise up against them. Really?
The reality is that immediately after news of the raid broke, there was a scramble to explain not just what happened but how it happened. If we loved bin Laden more than our own Army, where were the riots after some overzealous media groups reported that hundreds of Pakistani troops had taken part in the raid?
If we had a secret agreement that the Americans would not expose our cooperation, why did President Obama thank us in his announcement?
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.
Once the dust had settled a bit, then-President Zardari wrote the following:
Although the events of Sunday were not a joint operation, a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden as a continuing threat to the civilized world. And we in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaeda courier ultimately led to this day.
Let us be frank. Pakistan has paid an enormous price for its stand against terrorism. More of our soldiers have died than all of NATO’s casualties combined. Two thousand police officers, as many as 30,000 innocent civilians and a generation of social progress for our people have been lost. And for me, justice against bin Laden was not just political; it was also personal, as the terrorists murdered our greatest leader, the mother of my children. Twice he tried to assassinate my wife. In 1989 he poured $50 million into a no-confidence vote to topple her first government. She said that she was bin Laden’s worst nightmare — a democratically elected, progressive, moderate, pluralistic female leader. She was right, and she paid for it with her life.
Media claimed Pakistan Army carried out the operation. President Obama thanked Pakistan for our cooperation. President Zardari praised the death of bin Laden as ‘justice’. And there were no riots, no popular uprising against the Army. Yes, crazies like Hafiz Saeed praised bin Laden as a martyr, but for most Pakistanis, concerns about the American military raid were not based in sympathy for the target, they were the embarrassment of having a foreign power announce that they had found a rat in our house. Most Pakistanis would have preferred if he had been captured alive and were frustrated that the operation was carried out without more Pakistani involvement.
So why are Gen Durrani and other retired intelligence officials trying to sell this story? This is what is really problematic because it implies that in order to repair their own reputation, some in the ranks would rather paint the rest of the country as terrorists. If that is the case, it is not that the Army is in danger of being held in contempt by the people, it is the other way around.