Monday, May 2, 2011

Hiding bin Laden: Finger of suspicion at ISI

WASHINGTON: Just hours after American Navy Seals shot dead Osama bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan on Sunday, US President Barack Obama shot down the Pakistani security establishment's attempt to claim joint credit for the operation. 

In a ten-minute television address, Obama left no doubt that US personnel alone were involved in the action that brought bin Laden to justice. ''Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan,'' Obama said, adding, ''A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.'' 

While Obama said ''It's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,'' he made no mention of anyPakistani military role in the operation. US officials in background briefing made it clear that no country, much less Pakistan, was informed of the operation. 

In fact, there was not even a word of thanks for Pakistan. Instead, Obama said: ''Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al-Qaida and its affiliates.'' 

The finger of suspicion is now pointing squarely at the Pakistani military and intelligence for sheltering and protecting Osama bin Laden before US forces hunted him down and put a bullet in his head in the wee hours of Sunday. The coordinates of the action and sequence of events indicate that the al-Qaida fugitive may have been killed in an ISI safehouse. 

US analysts uniformly suggested that the Pakistani security establishment's claim of a role in the operation is clearly aimed at ducking charges of its military's possible role in hiding bin Laden. ''This is hugely embarrassing for Pakistan,'' was a common refrain on US TV channels throughout the night. 

In fact, top US officials have openly suggested for months that the Pakistani military establishment was hiding bin Laden. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came closest to publicly exposing Pakistan's role last May when she accused some government officials there of harboring Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. 

''I am not saying they are at the highest level...but I believe somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Taliban are,'' Clinton said on May 10 last year, adding, ''We expect more cooperation (from Pakistan) to help us bring to justice capture or kill those who brought us 9/11.'' 

Taken together with President Obama's pointed reference to President Zardari and leaving out any mention of Pakistani forces' involvement, it would seem that Washington believes that Pakistan's military intelligence establishment, including the ISI, was sheltering bin Laden. The ISI was accused as recently as last week by the top US military official Admiral Mike Mullen of having terrorist links, and named as a terrorist support entity by US officials, according to the Guantanamo cables. 

Lending credence to the charges is the fact that US forces homed in on bin Laden in Abbottabad, which is a cantonment just 50 kms from Islamabad, where the Pakistani military has a strong presence. The place where bin Laden was killed is only kilometers from the Kakul military academy, where many Pakistani military elites, including some of its ISI cadres, graduate from. 

While US officials are tightlipped about precise details, analysts are trying to figure out whether the compound that sheltered bin Laden was an ISI safehouse. There is also speculation as to whether Hillary Clinton was referring to this when she made her pointed remarks last May. 

US officials have said for years that they believed bin Laden escaped to Pakistan after the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan. But Pakistani officials, including its former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, insisted that he was in Afghanistan, even as Afghan officials would angrily refute it and say he is in Pakistan. In the end, the Americans and Afghans were right on the money.

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