The Durrani Network: What does Seymour Hersh’s Report Tell About Supposedly “Retired” ISI Men?

Hamid Gul Aslam Beg Asad Durrani

Seymour Hersh’s sensational 10,000 word report on the Abbottabad raid was met by most analysts, including this humble blogger, with something of a smirk. While he described the official version of events as a story that “might have been written by Lewis Carroll”, his tale itself seemed to be filled with deep rabbit holes. However, things began to quickly take a turn as additional sources from the shadowy world of spy agencies began to confirm portions of his story. First came NBC News report that said that “a special operations officer and a CIA officer who had served in Pakistan…and a third source, a very senior former U.S. intelligence official” all confirmed that “a retired Pakistani military intelligence officer” helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden and that “some officials in the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding all along”. Then came a second report where investigative journalist Carlotta Gall said that this part of Hersh’s report was also in line with what she was told during her research in Pakistan:

I learned from a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service that the ISI had been hiding Bin Laden and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. After the book came out, I learned more: that it was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier — all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military — who told the C.I.A. where Bin Laden was hiding, and that Bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI.

I will not pretend to have any insights into this. Like everyone else, I am watching the story unfold before my eyes. There is one thing that has captured my curiosity, though. In dismissing Seymour Hersh’s report, many analysts both in Pakistan and abroad, criticised the reporter for relying so heavily on former DG-ISI Gen Duranni. He retired from service 20 years ago, they explained. He may be good at getting himself on TV, but he’s not privy to such details of covert operations. Now, though, it’s not just Seymour Hersh whose story is being confirmed, it’s Gen Durrani’s.

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Dangerous Implications of Seymour Hersh’s Story

Gen Durrani

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.

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Masters of Our Own Destiny

Cafe Pyala Tweeted something to Express Tribune editor Omar Quraishi that I thought was spot on – “It’s not Osama bin Laden’s death that will haunt Pakistan. It’s the editorials.”

This Tweet could, and probably will be, read different ways by different people. I took something from it, though, that may not have been originally intended. Rather than looking at one or another specific editorial, the collection of responses to the Abbottabad raid paints an unhealthy picture of our unwillingness or inability to engage in honest conversations about sensitive issues.

Because we are unwilling or unable to confront the fact that Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan for years until the Americans came and got him, we respond a mess of confused rhetoric. A few days after the 2nd May raid on bin Laden’s compound, The Nation – hardly a pro-American mouthpiece – reported that the raid was carried out as a joint operation between Pakistan and American military.

About 200 Pakistan Army men provided ground support, top level official sources told The Nation. During the operation, four helicopters of the Pakistan Army hovered over the fortress-like hideout of al-Qaeda chief at Thanda Choh, a relatively isolated area of Abbottabads otherwise posh locality Bilal Town that is barely a kilometre away from the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. After completing aerial assessments, the four Pakistan Army helicopters were replaced by two US helicopters, ten minutes later. Initially, the US military personnel opened fire at the outer wall of Osamas hideout, which was retaliated by the house inmates with heavy gunfire. After almost twenty minutes of cross-firing, the US forces directly targeted the house with sophisticated bombs, eventually killing Osama, his eight bodyguards, seven close aides and an unspecified number of family members including a young son, children and two wives. When the residents of the area, upon hearing heavy gunshots and explosions, came out of their homes or went up to the rooftops of their houses, Pakistani soldiers in helicopters threw search lights, instructing them to stay indoors. Besides initial aerial support, the Pakistan Army provided ground support by deploying ground troops within a radius of one kilometre of the operation area. The operation continued till 2: 30am. PMA top officials at Kakul did not disclose for several hours the name of the locality where the operation had taken place. Till Monday morning, PMA officials maintained that a Pakistan Army helicopter had crashed near Bilal Town while carrying out routine strategic exercises. Not before the Monday noon, it could be confirmed that Osama bin Laden was killed in the military operation.

Even today, there remain military officials who insist that bin Laden’s death was the result of joint Pak-US operations.

Pakistan’s ISI believes it deserves credit for helping US spy agencies locate the hideout of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US commandos nearly a year ago.

“The lead and the information actually came from us,” an unnamed senior official with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told The Washington Post.

“Any hit on al-Qaeda anywhere in the world has happened with our help,” The Post quotes one of the Pakistani intelligence officials as saying.

If it was a joint operation, though, why is Dr Shakil Afridi arrested for treason?

It’s not just high level officials, though, who seem to be using self-confusion as a defence mechanism. In a recent article in Dawn, the reporter recalls talking to people who live near Osama’s compound and the conflicting reactions to the raid.

An old man sitting on a grassy patch is not happy to be accosted. Reluctant to talk, he then just erupts and says that Osama did not live there.

“There were ordinary people, families who were killed by them. But there was no Osama,” he says, as he gazes ahead, not willing to make eye contact.

That’s the “there is no Osama” viewpoint. Then there’s the other popular one:

A younger man, with a whisper of a beard, is more forthcoming. When asked if he too thought OBL never lived there, he launches into a long exposition on world politics which he first summarises with a few words: “Osama, Obama, money and drama.”

This is not the view of an extremist or right winger. In his exposition he dismisses “the so-called jihad” and points out that he did not consider OBL as anything more than a “fighter” of some kind.

There was no Osama or there was an Osama but he was not a terrorist?

Actually, what I often hear is are all contradictory beliefs bundled together. 9/11 was a fake drama carried out by CIA to justify invading Muslim countries, but the Americans deserved it for meddling in Muslim countries and supporting kaafir dictators. There was no such person as Osama bin Laden, but if there was he was a creation of the CIA during the 1980s and imposed on us when they abandoned us. Osama didn’t live in Pakistan, but the Americans should not have invaded unilateraly and we would have arrested him gladly.

It’s not just Osama bin Laden, either. This is the kind of double-talk that we hear about drones: Drones are evil and are only killing innocents. Give us the drones and we will use them against militants. It’s the same thing we hear about the Americans in Afghanistan: If they leave, they will be abandoning us to chaos and militancy. If they don’t leave they are causing chaos and militancy.

On the imporant issues, we have cleverly convinced ourselves that not matter what, we are victims. I think this tendency is a result of our history. Having spent so long under the rule of undemocratic regimes – first British colonial rule, then a string of military dictatorships – we have grown accustomed to seeing the world in a fatalistic way. There was nothing we could do because, literally, there was nothing we could do.

All that changed, though, in 2007 when we as a free and sovereign people sent the last dictator packing and took control of our own future. We elected our own leaders, and finally became free to make our own decisions. We are no longer the subjects of the British or the Generals. But we still bear the psychological scars left by the trauma of living under dictatorship. We haven’t shaken the mindset that tells us that our fate is in our own hands.

For the first time, Pakistan can be OUR Pakistan. It can be what we want, not what is imposed on us. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. It will take a lot of work. We’re going to make mistakes, but they will be OUR mistakes. And we can learn from our mistakes and improve and make the country better for our children, and they for their children, etc etc etc.

Before we can do anything, though, we have to find a way to shed the psychological baggage that weighs on us, telling us that we will always be victims. In democracy, we are no longer victims – we are masters of our own destiny. Let’s start thinking like it.

Chaudhry Nisar’s Charge Sheet

Chaudhry Nisar on Friday told the National Assembly that the statement of PM regarding Osama bin Laden is “a charge sheet against the defence forces”, and that “it might be used against the defence forces in an international forum or court”. An interesting statement considering his leader Nawaz Sharif told DG ISI Shuja Pasha to his own face, “where there is smoke there is fire”. An especially interesting comment considering Nisar himself has termed Pasha as untrustworthy, earning him a sharp response from the DG ISI. Chaudhry Nisar who claimed he had proof that ISI was supporting PTI. Chaudhry Nisar is also the one who has demanded Gen Pasha’s resignation twice already this year – once after Abbottabad and again a few weeks ago. If anyone has been building a charge sheet against defence forces, it’s Chaudhry Nisar.

But so what? Are military and intelligence agencies sacred cows? I guess the better question is, should they be? How are we supposed to be safe if we can’t ask hard questions of the very institutions that are supposed to be protecting us? The world’s most wanted terrorist was found in our own yard, everyone wants to ignore the obvious problems with that fact.

When PM Gilani spoke before the National Assembly, he was not the first person to ask the question, and he won’t be the last. In May, polling company Rasmussen Reports found that 84 per cent of Americans thought it was likely that some Pakistani official knew where Osama was hiding.

The new national hero Mansoor Ijaz, when he hasn’t been accusing the military of plotting a coup, has been all over the media insisting that Pakistan military was hiding Osama bin Laden.

Apparently even former DG ISI Gen Ziauddin Butt has said that there is evidence that the military his Osama bin Laden with the knowledge of Pervez Musharraf, Intelligence Bureau General Ijaz Shah and possibly current chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kiyani.

I think with each of these accusers, certain facts must be taken into light – Mansoor Ijaz’s credibility is very much in question. Gen Ziauddin Butt arrested and imprisoned by Musharraf following his coup against Nawaz Sharif’s government, so he may be saying these things just to get revenge.

But if people are out there openly accusing the military of hiding Osama bin Laden, shouldn’t we have an investigation to prove them wrong? This is what I thought the Abbottabad Commission was supposed to be, but, as usual, it quickly swept away the difficult questions and has all but ignored the question of how Osama got here in the first place.

Any ‘charge sheet’ against the military will not come from the PM. Hiding our heads in the sand and pretending that these questions are not already floating all over the world does nothing to improve our image or our national security. Quite the opposite. Isn’t it time we put the questions to rest with a real inquiry? What do we have to be afraid of?

Life After the Salala Bombings

NATO protest

The recent NATO airstrike on two Pakistani military outposts near the village of Salala have triggered yet another flash point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Officials in Islamabad have reportedly confirmed that at least 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by strikes that involved both NATO helicopter gunships and fighter jets.

The cross-border incident has already claimed its first victims, as the U.S. subleased Shamsi airbase—a launching pad for drones flying over the tribal areas—and the crucial supply routes through Torkham to Western forces in Afghanistan have been sacrificed at the altar. Details of the strike are still shrouded in mystery however, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern over the ramifications the attack will have on the future of an already tumultuous relationship.

The United States and Pakistan have coped with crisis after crisis all year, from the Raymond Davis episode to the raid that killed Usama bin Laden. However, the recent air strike has brought Pakistani anger to a new apex especially since Pakistani blood now stains the soil. Some in Pakistan insist that this is the last straw and that rhetoric should be reinforced with action, implying the immediate severing of ties. But the partnership—as frustrating as it is—is durable and will remain firm into the foreseeable future. Essentially, after the smoke clears and the public diatribes are over, the U.S. and Pakistan will undoubtedly return to business as usual.

Given the Pakistani public’s rampant anti-Americanism, it is standard procedure for Pakistani representatives—both civilian and military—to publicly berate the U.S. when relations hit a critical point in order to preserve their domestic political support bases. Behind the scenes however, the U.S. and Pakistan acknowledge that they have vital overlapping interests including the neutralization of al Qaeda from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the survivability of the CIA drone program. Indeed, these are the nuances of the relationship that nullify the prospect of a full-blown amputation of cooperation between the two.

Both Washington and Islamabad share the ambition to once and for all eliminate al Qaeda from the South Asian region. The terror network, while at first focused mainly on the disillusion of Arab autocracies had no intention of targeting the Pakistani state until former president Musharraf pledged his unflinching support for the U.S.’s War on Terror. Left with no choice but to categorize Pakistan as a kafir state, al Qaeda began engineering the ideological cultivation of Pakistan’s tribal areas after it sought refuge there following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.1

Its greatest achievement was the creation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella term used to represent a phalanx of radical Islamist militant groups sworn to destroy the Pakistani state and replace it with a system heavily influenced by Sharia law.2 The al Qaeda affiliated TTP is responsible for notable attacks such as the Marriot Hotel bombing in Islamabad that left 54 dead, at least 266 people injured, and a gaping crater sprawled out in the street, and the siege of Mehran Naval base in Karachi earlier this year. The South Asian Terror Portal has also linked the group to a slew of suicide bombings in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

It is hard to believe that Pakistanis would shed a tear if the al Qaeda affiliated TTP were somehow dissolved. Indeed, the CIA’s drone program—operating out of Shamsi—located near the town of Washki in southwestern Pakistan—is tasked to do just that. In a deal forged during the Bush Administration, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. drones to operate on its soil since it would assist in the killing of mutual enemies. These included senior al Qaeda members such as Sheikh Essa and TTP leader Baitullah Meshud, who was later incinerated along with his wife in 2008 by a Hellfire strike from a Predator. The U.S. was quick to accede and Pakistan has benefited from the vanquishing of its adversaries. In short, the Pakistanis want the drone program just as much as the U.S. does as long as it does not disrupt the operations of militants on the ISI payroll like Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir. In essence, the Pakistani security establishment knows that the country needs the drones for its own security.

There is also little to fear from Pakistani demands for the CIA to vacate Shamsi and the subsequent closing of the cross-border supply routes. According to Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations, the squeezing of U.S. assets does little harm to U.S. operations in South Asia. It is reasonable to assume that given the nadir of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship after JSOC’s foray in Abbottabad that the CIA has prepared for a possible eviction and will wage its drone war elsewhere with Pakistani approval. Naturally, the Pakistanis have demanded the CIA leave the base, not end the drones.

Tom Gjelten at National Public Radio (NPR) also reports that the U.S. is exploring alternate supply routes to Afghanistan. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of routes from Europe across Central Asia that enter Afghanistan from the north, all avoid running through Pakistan.13 The NDN if successful, would help remove a critical piece of Pakistani leverage over the U.S.

Ultimately, while the death of Pakistani soldiers is tragic, the NATO attack on Salala is but a minor hiccup, leaving the crisis-laden partnership unscathed given the need for mutual cooperation on the counterterrorism front. In the coming days, a series of diplomatic meetings will likely cool Pakistan’s temperature and restore the alliance back to what it once was. Nonetheless, the U.S. and Pakistan are destined to experience these mishaps again and again.


1 Shahzad, Syed S., Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban, London: Pluto Press (2011) p. 8
2 Abbas, Hassan. “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.” CTC Sentinel 1, No. 2 (January 2008)

The author is a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is currently working on a project detailing the history of US foreign policy towards Pakistan.