One dead terrorist and a million theories

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Hidden in plain sight In Pakistan, there is a visible tendency to bury inquiry reports, Photo: AFP

Those who have read literature from Pakistan will probably agree that just like A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, the leaked draft of the Abbotabad Commission report on the 2 May 2011 operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden makes for a riveting read. A reader is unable to take his/her eyes off the 336-page report revealed by Al Jazeera, after it was probably leaked by the Pakistan government.

This we know through talk show comments and opinion pieces by renowned journalists such as Ahmed Rashid, Najam Sethi and Nasim Zehra, who now argue about the correctness of the report and how a great job was done by the Abbottabad Commission in finding out how the ‘system’ was responsible for hiding Osama and for later allowing the US Navy seals to sneak into Pakistan and conduct an operation in which the most sought after al Qaeda leader was killed. But then there are others equally close to powerful elements of the State who argue that the leaked report is actually not the final draft but one of the versions written, perhaps, by a former diplomat who was a member of the commission.

While such story spinning seems to be an effort to debunk the leaked report, it does raise questions about why the government is shying away from releasing the actual report. Is there something in the final draft that the government does not want disclosed? Or is it that the final draft is so different from the leaked version that people will be able to tell the difference and begin to see through some of the lies?

There is the story of how Osama continued to live inside Pakistan for almost nine years undetected as recounted in the report, and then there is the story of the report itself. At this juncture, it seems that Islamabad will most likely keep its attention on the latter rather than learn from the former. Whether the leaked report is a working draft or a final one is immaterial because the testimonies of hundreds of people, including top military officers such as the DG, Military Intelligence, and ISI, the adjutant-general of the Pakistan Army, the chief-of-staff of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the deputy chief-of-staff (Operations), make for a very interesting read.

It is a fact that for an accident-prone country like Pakistan, there is a visible tendency to hide inquiry reports. Whether it is the probe into the murder of prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, and the plane crash of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, or the Ojhri Camp disaster (where a camp used as an ammunition depot for the mujahideen fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan exploded on 10 April 1988, killing more than 1,000 people, leading to speculations that it was caused by Pakistani agents to cover up pilferage of weapons, though officials blamed Afghan intelligence agents) and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, facts are always kept hidden from the people.

In the country’s 66-year history, only two reports have surfaced partly through leaks: the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission report on the 1971 war with India and dismemberment of East Pakistan, and the Abbotabad Commission report. The former report was partly leaked in 2000 but with little effect in terms of structural changes or improvement. Perhaps, this was because that leak took place under a military government, which was not keen to improve its internal system and develop structures that may later be exploited by civilian governments. However, this time around, the leak has taken place under the civilian leadership of Nawaz Sharif, who would certainly benefit from the contents of the report and aim at structural changes that would strengthen civilian control of the armed forces. The issue, nonetheless, is how prepared is the civilian government to bring about such change? It’s a question that takes us back to the issue of the incentive behind the leak.

Obviously, there are many stories floating around Islamabad, starting from the civilian government leaking the report to start a debate on civil-military relations and use the moment to reverse the balance, to the rumours that it was someone within the military who leaked it. There are again two kinds of explanations about why the military would leak the story. The first version that some of the western diplomats like to believe is that the leak is an inside job so that the civilian leadership could be forced to take responsibility for defence decision-making and in improving the system, which currently puts the onus on the armed forces. But reading the arrogant testimony of former isi chief Lt Gen (retd) Ahmed Shuja Pasha, one is dissuaded from making such an assumption. All the military officers testifying before the commission have held everyone responsible for the failure to detect Osama and the US incursion except themselves. The second theory is that the leak was done probably to embarrass the current army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has a lot to answer for in terms of any visible response to the American incursion. Any questions raised about why it took the PAF two hours to come into action, or why there wasn’t any resistance to American forces that conducted the operation and were inside Pakistani territory for a few hours, automatically points a finger at the army’s top leadership. Did Kayani know about the operation? Why couldn’t the PAF detect an incursion? Why did the army and the air force not react? These are a number of questions that the top leadership must answer, especially at a time when Kayani is keen to get another extension.

It is also equally interesting that while a lot of people directly or indirectly linked with the 2 May operation (including journalists who wrote on the issue, and security experts) were summoned by the commission, it could not get the army chief, the president and the prime minister to testify, despite that fact that their testimonies could help provide some more answers. Or perhaps caught with their pants down, the government and the security establishment were not keen on presenting an inquiry that pointed fingers exactly at where the responsibility lay for a faux pas of such a phenomenal order. Indeed, the available draft of the report talks about problems “within the system” without really arriving at a conclusion as to what the problems are and who is responsible for the condition. The adjutant-general of the army warns of some catastrophe if the “dysfunctional” system is not improved. The air chief holds the 2004 Defence Policy and the 2007 internal military strategy, which focusses on India, as one of the reasons why his service was not watching for incursions from the western border. The DG ISI holds everyone else responsible but himself and his organisation. In fact, according to Pasha, Osama couldn’t be found because, due to the general breakdown of systems in the country, the ISI had to manage everything, and was so overstretched that it couldn’t do what it is supposed to. Then there are testimonies of civilian officials from the police, revenue, electricity department, besides others, who happily conceded that they did not attend to the place where Osama was hiding because this was an area that came under the military and they didn’t want to upset the system.

In many ways, the report is a tragic tale of how civil-military relations have come to a pass in Pakistan. In fact, it draws an ugly picture of the helplessness of the civilians versus the military. The police, which should be the primary force to deal with counter-terrorism, is not willing to take on the responsibility because of the fear that it may intrude in the military’s area of interest. The Osama story is indeed the tip of the iceberg as far as counter-terrorism is concerned. There are a large number of terrorists and militants all over the country that the police will not touch for the same reason.

But having read the report, one goes back to the fundamental question: will this be the moment for the civilian government to bell the cat? The previous Pakistan People’s Party government almost voluntarily lost the initiative to sort out the military’s excessive power when the latter had its back to the wall after 2 May. The question is, will the new government use the moment it has found to bring structural changes or blow away the opportunity in doing under-the-table deals for personal advantage?

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of  Military Inc

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