Pakistan Reader# 591, 4 May 2023
D. Suba Chandran
On the early morning of 02 May 2011 and late night of 01 May, US Navy SEALs took off in two helicopters from Jalalabad in Afghanistan, entered Pakistan’s air space, flew to Abbottabad targeting the mansion where Osama bin Laden was hiding since 2006. In an operation that lasted for nearly 40 minutes, the US SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, along with a few others, took his body and flew back, without any interruption. Later, the then US President Obama made an official statement: “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.”
There have been numerous reports – official, investigative and academic – on the killing of Osama bin Laden. But, still there are differing opinions on crucial questions. The most important amongst them was whether the political and military leadership in Pakistan knew in advance about the raid? And whether there was any assistance from Pakistan in aiding the American raid. There are two dramatically opposing views on this. Seymour M. Hersh argued in his lengthy essay titled, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," that the military leadership was aware: "The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission." Responding to his assertion, Hussain Huqqani, then then Pakistan Ambassador to the US, argued against the Hersh thesis in a commentary titled “What Pakistan Knew About the Bin Laden Raid” published in the Foreign Policy in May 2015 : "If the ISI had hidden bin Laden for five years, it would not have cooperated in the U.S. operation to kill him without demanding a serious quid pro quo."
A second major question that remains unanswered is Pakistan’s military response to the raid. As mentioned above the US helicopters invaded Pakistan air space, reached Abbottabad and conducted an operation for 40 minutes, took Osama bin Laden’s body, and returned. Without any land or air resistance from Pakistan’s security forces. A larger issue that the Abbottabad Commission, which was appointed officially by the government of Pakistan, was asked to address. The report was never published officially, but got leaked and could be accessed from a database at the Princeton University, and also in Al Jazeera news portal.
A third major question was related to the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and in the mansion in Abbottabad since 2006, after travelling across Pakistan. Did the Establishment know about his presence and the movement, and did someone within the Establishment leak the whereabouts of Osama to the US intelligence forces? Bruce Riedel’s response to the above Commission report, published by Brookings, titled “Pakistan’s Osama bin Laden Report: Was Pakistan Clueless or Complicit in Harboring Bin Laden?” looks into the above question. Riedel concludes: “The commission’s report reminds us that we still don’t have a good answer to the central mystery of Abbottabad–how did the most wanted man in history hide in the front yard of the Pakistani army for six years undetected? The report puts the burden primarily on ISI’s “gross incompetence” but doesn’t rule out the possibility of complicity. Perhaps we’ll never know, but the commission report is a useful and important addition to the search for an answer.”
A fourth question, that is equally important is related to al Qaeda’s presence within Pakistan, after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Riedel writes: “Al Qaeda does not operate in Pakistan in a vacuum, but because it has a friendly environment. Bin Laden’s allies were men like Lashkar-e-Toiba leader Hafeez Saeed and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Both remain close allies of ISI.”
A final question would be: besides the Establishment, where does civil society stand vis-à-vis al Qaeda and its ideology today? In 2020, years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the then Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, in an address to the National Assembly, called Osama bin Laden a martyr. Later, the foreign minister of Pakistan in June 2021, refused to answer the question of whether he considered bin Laden as a martyr. He was quoted by Dawn, to have told: “I’ll let it pass.”
Twelve years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is time for Pakistan to have a clear answer to the above questions and not let it pass any further.