When U.S. President Obama called Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to tell him the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. citizens in a lightening raid not far from the Pakistani capital last night, he also instructed his team to similarly inform their Pakistani counterparts. The question is, who was surprised when they picked up the phone?
That bin Laden had been living in a specially constructed compound less than an hours' drive from Pakistani military HQ, and in the same town as the country's premier military academy, makes the near constant denials by Pakistan's intelligence agencies that the terror group leader was in the country difficult to swallow. Sure, there are at times a Keystone-cops element to the operational methods of the agencies—those assigned to trail foreign journalists in the country are less than subtle in their surveillance methods: One once asked me my address, as he was sitting in my house, another decided that quizzing my driver about my activities was far less work than actually following me to interviews—but bumbling or not, they are ubiquitous. The crackle and click of telephone lines is the constant reminder that no conversation over the phone is private, the crew-cut men in beige that materialize whenever I start asking questions proof that one is never quite alone in Pakistan. So the idea that absolutely no one but American intelligence knew who was living in that multi-million dollar compound beggars belief.
Obama was careful to thank Pakistani assistance in the raid, but how, exactly, the Pakistanis assisted will be a key part of understanding the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. going forward. Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen told Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn that the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had a “relationship” with the al Qaeda affiliated Haqqani network:
"It's fairly well known that the ISI has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network….Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen…..So that's at the core - it's not the only thing -- but that's at the core that I think is the most difficult part of the relationship.”
The Haqqani network is thought to be behind several gruesome attacks on foreign soldiers and embassies in neighboring Afghanistan, including the 2009 attack on the Indian Embassy there that killed 17 and wounded 63. More worryingly is recent evidence that the ISI may have had links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, in which 10 well-trained Pakistani militants coordinated a bombing and shooting attack at several landmarks that killed 164. At a trial slated for May 16th David Headley, the Pakistani American accused of assisting LeT in reconnaissance for the attack, is expected to implicate the ISI, confirming long held suspicions by both American and Indian authorities, as well as many Pakistanis.
Defenders of the ISI say that it is their job to maintain contacts with groups like that as part of their intelligence gathering methods. One spokesman told me that the ISI has infiltrators in the terror groups just like the FBI has people undercover in the Mafia. That may be the case. But either way the ISI isn't going to come out of this well. Either they knew about bin Laden and waited to inform the U.S., or they were oblivious to the presence of a massive, multi-million dollar compound in their back yard, one so secretive that the residents burned their own trash. That doesn't augur well for Pakistan's ability to tackle the next terrorist threat that comes out of the woodwork
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