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What Did the Pakistani Military and Intelligence Service Know?

The narrative of the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is still in flux, nearly seven days out. The nucleus of that narrative however remains static : what did the Pakistani military and intelligence services know about bin Laden’s whereabouts, when did it know it and what did it do about that knowledge or lack thereof?

We have good grounds to think that the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, lies to the military and the military in turn lies to the civilian led Zardari government.  Given all this dissembling there can be little doubt that each agent is now fending for its own interests.  Right out of the gate, President Zardari published an op-ed in the Washington Post defending Pakistan’s role in the whole bloody affair.  Soon thereafter, the Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S, argued that at best Pakistan’s intelligence services were incompetent, that there was no chicanery involved in all this.  Every party to this sorry state seems inclined to plead ignorance.

Two days after the infamous events in Abbottabad, in an official press release the military insisted that it knew nothing about the May 1st operation undertaken by U.S. Special Forces. Nevertheless, it claimed it had an operation hand in relaying intelligence:

“Abbottabad and the surrounding areas have been under sharp focus of intelligence agencies since 2003… as far as the target compound is concerned, ISI had been sharing information with CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009. The intelligence flow indicating some foreigners in the surroundings of Abbottabad, continued till mid April 2011. It is important to highlight that taking advantage of much superior technological assets, CIA exploited the intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Ladin, a fact also acknowledged by the US President and Secretary of State, in their statements.”

That the ISI passed on intelligence to the CIA is indisputable. The question, as always, is did the ISI pass on the correct intelligence that was pertinent at the right time?  The answer to that question must be, is, an unequivocal no.  It is hardly surprising that locations in Abottabad might be under surveillance; after all it is the equivalent of West Point, NY.  Well off retired generals and their not so retired friends live there.  Moreover to the point that Hillary Clinton has been soft on Pakistan so far- and this hits at the politics of the moment-what should the Secretary of State, America’s diplomat say to its supposed ally dropping the ball quite so loudly?

Indeed, it’s become apparent that the Pakistani military and intelligence services offered little by way of information.  That at most it had helped point out the information of a courier who handled bin Laden’s traffic in audio-visual documents. It is possible this information was retrieved under torture conditions. This information was not- is not- unalloyed and clean. Furthermore, just because senior military officials denied knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts, the very fact of the location where he was found implies that at least some junior officers knew about his whereabouts.  This implies that the Pakistani military is in fact two militaries. Sure, many in Pakistan were ignorant about the location of bin Laden and his family.  But it is indisputable that someone with some power knew something.  For instance, how does one go about building a giant housing compound without telling off and paying off local political leaders?

Nevertheless, the one shining light in this quagmire is that so far it seems that quite apart from bin Laden’s compound, the Pakistani intelligence service didn’t know that the CIA was watching bin Laden from a compound of its own. This and this only seems to provide the evidence that, well, the Pakistani intelligence and military services were incompetent, even if they were not wholly ignorant.  It is possible then–not likely but possible–that the Pakistani intelligence services didn’t know anything about bin Laden’s location in Pakistan even though bin Laden’s widow has claimed that she lived in that residence for at least six years-some of that time with her late husband. (But what is worse? That the ISI are double-crossers, ignorant or incompetent?)

Now, if true that the ISI didn’t know much that is a fine result from an American perspective; from a Pakistani however, such a result is akin to living in rental property looked over by an absentee landlord.

The street is enraged, and the most recent news that the U.S is demanding the names of its ISI agents can’t go over well.  If Pakistanis are upset that the U.S. intervened into sovereign territory, how might they respond when they come to know that the U.S is intervening in sovereign politics as well.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

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