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No Relief To Know Pakistan Probably Didn't Hide Bin Laden

Although Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has helped terrorists in the past, protecting Osama bin Laden would have not have been in the country's national interest.
Although Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has helped terrorists in the past, protecting Osama bin Laden would have not have been in the country's national interest.
A lot of people here in Washington seem to have made up their minds. Pakistan's security establishment must have had Osama bin Laden under its wing. Otherwise, how do you explain that he was living in that house, a stone's throw from the country's leading military academy?

Now, don't get me wrong. Pakistan's notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), has consorted with terrorists in the past. On that point there can be little doubt. There are proven links of cooperation between the ISI and fanatical jihadis.

The fanatics in question include the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, supported by the ISI as a way of boosting Pakistan's strategic leverage in Afghanistan.

Then there's the Haqqani network, a powerful insurgent organization with roots in eastern Afghanistan and headquarters in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Both of these groups provide the money, the training, and the planning for radical militants who have been killing Afghans, Americans, and their allies in Afghanistan.

Groups that have enjoyed ISI support also include Lashkar-e Taiba, the dangerous militant organization that targets Indian interests in particular and was probably behind the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 160 people.

Controversial History

The raiders specifically targeted Jews and foreigners. Those victims also included Americans, which is why an alleged plotter of that attack went on trial in Chicago this week. Evidence collected by U.S. prosecutors suggests that ISI agents might have been directly involved.

Yes, the ISI has a controversial history. So it should come as no surprise to see people in Washington arguing that it could also hide the leader of Al-Qaeda. Still, I think the case of Osama bin Laden is different.

In the past, Pakistan has supported fanatics like Mullah Omar to gain leverage in Afghanistan.
It's different because he wasn't just any terrorist. He wasn't Mullah Omar or Sirajuddin Haqqani or Hafiz Saeed Muhammad, the head of Lashkar-e Taiba. He was the most wanted terrorist on earth. The ISI could not afford to be complicit with this man.

He was the man responsible for killing nearly 3,000 people in the United States on September 11, 2001. He was the man responsible for bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, where dozens of Americans and local people died. He was the man responsible for the attacks on the "USS Cole" in 2000.

All that made him too big a risk for Pakistan to handle. The government in Pakistan, including the military, understood that protecting him would have threatened the continued flow of $3 billion in annual aid from Washington. And, more broadly, it understood that it could not afford to make an enemy of the Americans.

That would have run directly counter to Pakistani national interests.

No Strategic Upside

The ISI and the Pakistani military have historically tolerated or supported the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and Lashkar for clear strategic reasons -- mostly revolving around the need to counter what Pakistanis see as the overwhelming conventional might of India's military.

Propping up pro-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan serves the goal of creating "strategic depth" as insurance in the event of an Indian attack. Support for Muslim insurgents in Kashmir and elsewhere is designed to keep the superior Indian forces off balance.

There would have been no such strategic upside for helping bin Laden. He was the enemy of the world, not just the Americans, and getting outed as his ally would have done nothing to service Pakistan's cause.

Oh, yes, and then there's the point that Al-Qaeda and some of its jihadi allies had effectively declared war on the Pakistani state. The deaths of thousands of Pakistani soldiers have been attributed to them.

What's more, the officers of the ISI aren't stupid. They would have understood perfectly well not only the risks involved in shielding bin Laden, but also his value as a target.

If bin Laden had really enjoyed Pakistani protection, it seems unlikely that CIA agents could have monitored his compound for several months without being detected.
If they had really been his accomplices, they would not have left him on his own in an unguarded home in vulnerable Abottabad.

Did the Pakistanis have him under their protection or didn't they?

The house was unguarded. CIA agents apparently kept bin Laden under observation for months -- never once attracting the attention of the Pakistani security services. It seems highly unlikely that they could have gotten away with that if he had really enjoyed official protection.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the ISI had known he was there. Wouldn't they at least have wanted bin Laden under their control to ensure that he wasn't doing anything that could have attracted unwelcome attention?

Yet according to the accounts coming out of Washington, bin Laden might actually have been planning attacks and doing his best to keep Al-Qaeda going even from his villa in Abbottabad.

It's generally known that the leaders of Lashkar-e Taiba live in houses protected by gunmen who have some sort of connection with the government. This isn't just a gesture of charity. It's also to make sure that Lashkar remembers who its real masters are.

It isn't logical that the ISI would have let bin Laden live in Abbottabad without at least monitoring his activities. But so far there doesn't seem to be any evidence that this was the case.

The notion that the ISI was completely out of the loop on bin Laden is also supported by the timing of the operation to kill him.

Not Complicit, Merely Incompetent

If the ISI had been protecting bin Laden, surely it wouldn't have been surprised by a raid that included U.S. special forces flying in from Afghanistan, spending 40 minutes on the ground, and then flying out again. Surely they would have figured out that something was happening before the Americans notified them.

What the whole story shows, in fact, is not that the ISI was complicit. It was, instead, miserably incompetent.

And this is pretty frightening in its own right.

The whole episode shows that Pakistan's vaunted military establishment utterly failed to protect the country's airspace. The raid took place in the middle of a city filled with Pakistani military installations.

Bin Laden was actively planning attacks just hundreds of yards away from the country's premier military academy, a post that regularly hosts high-level dignitaries, including the chief of the army.

None of this bodes well for the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, some of which are located not far from Abbottabad. Pakistan today has the world's fifth-largest nuclear arsenal, and it is growing faster than anyone else's.

Then there is the political side. The army and the ISI are often hailed as the only institutions capable of holding together a country bedeviled by jihadi terrorism, corruption, endemic poverty, and ethnic separatism.

The bin Laden episode demonstrates that the military's actual ability to influence events may be more limited than we thought.

Other state institutions in Pakistan are already fragile enough. This display of ineptitude by the country's last remaining strong institution, the military, bodes ill.

Bin Laden's death is good news for the world. But we would all have reason to feel better were it not for the message that it conveys about the stability of the country in which he was killed.

Muhammad Tahir is a Washington correspondent for RFE/RL and former correspondent of the IHA Turkish News Agency in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL