Sunday night, May 1: We had just put our kids to sleep and I was about to turn off the TV and yawn my way to bed. I casually checked my Twitter account with a quick glance on my smart- phone and there was a short tweet from a Pakistani-American journalist simply saying: “turn on your TV.” And then the revelations began. President Obama had managed to keep his cool over a painstaking covert operation to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist. Even though the American media continued to confuse their two names again, little doubt remained that the triumph of Obama over Osama was sealed -- by a brave contingent of US Navy SEALs.
The cavalcade of rumors and speculative punditry from media across the miles began soon thereafter. Immediate questions were posed. How did the US president manage to capture this elusive criminal when his far more hawkish predecessor George W. Bush had failed? Who did he trust in this operation and to what effect? The first step in the answer to this question lies in resource allocation for this task. Monday afternoon, I was on a public radio show where Senator Leahy of Vermont (chairman of the US senate judiciary committee and also a member of the committee that authorizes funds for the CIA), gave part of the answer. Senator Leahy stated that Mr. Obama had made the capture of Osama bin Laden a top priority for the CIA and that both Republicans and Democrats alike “made it clear to the CIA that they could have whatever money they wanted” to find Osama.
It was these funds which allowed for a very detailed spy operation to be undertaken in Pakistan. This is the juncture where Pakistan’s help in the matter cannot be neglected. All of the operatives were given Pakistani visas to operate freely within the country with clear knowledge of their goal. Most celebrated among these operatives was Raymond Davis. Even with regard to his misadventures in Lahore, the Pakistani government eventually cooperated and repatriated him. As Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts rightly commented to various sectors of the US media, the gathering of intelligence for this operation would have been impossible without Pakistan’s cooperation. He also acknowledged the enormous suffering that the Pakistanis have faced during these 10 years. More than 31,000 people have been killed in Pakistan since 9/11 in incidents related to the "war on terror," including numerous military officers. President Asif Ali Zardari noted this in a prompt oped for the Washington Post published on May 3.
The American media appears to have some degree of KGB nostalgia in terms of its obsession with reporting about the ISI (Pakistan's military intelligence service). Without many facts, conjecture and speculation is paraded as news reminiscent of the Cold War days. No doubt questions should be asked but with a sense of objective investigative journalism. For example, a CIA safe house was allowed to operate in close proximity to the Osama compound for months. Might this have not been enough for the ISI to alert Osama Bin Laden if they were so involved with his evasion? As the US government has revealed (and confirmed by Bob Woodward in his recent article), the couriers did not even turn on their cell phones until they were 90 miles from the compound for fear of being tracked. Does this not question the proximate complicity hypothesis?
But here’s the rub. While liberal Pakistanis are anxious to claim credit for this part of the operation, the security hawks are furious about Pakistan’s impotence regarding the entire matter. The reality is that we will probably not know the full facts of this operation for at least a few decades when the official transcripts of the operation are declassified. Until then it is best to follow Peter Bergen’s advice and remain “agnostic” about the Pakistani-US communication on the matter or about Pakistan's alleged complicity in shielding Bin Laden. It is tempting to rush to judgment on the matter, cheered on by Indian and Afghan critics of all-things-Pakistan. Instead, let’s focus on what we know for sure and how to glean lessons for the future of US-Pakistan relations.
The initial information which led the US authorities to suspect the Abbotabad compound as a safe house for Bin Laden was obtained through interrogation of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The trusted courier for Bin Laden was identified through these interrogations. As for the conspiracy theorists who might refuse to believe the salience of Guantanomo interrogations, I would urge them to read the latest contingent of Wikileaks Gitmo files release last month. The value of these interrogations are laid out clearly including some very seriously incriminating information about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui which the Pakistani media has neglected to pay much attention to.
There is little doubt that Pakistan's military has an ambivalent view towards America but that is the case with most countries in the region. Until the United States is seen as a fair broker in regional peace-building around the Kashmir conflict and other points of grievance with India, there will always be this ambivalence. It is high time the US give regional peace-building between India and Pakistan greater priority. This will immediately change public opinion in Pakistan while also strengthening our collective positive goals in Afghanistan.
So the “moral” of the story if any is: careful intelligence gathering from the point of interrogation, coupled with an influx of resources are essential ingredients in such a mission. While either side hates to admit this, Pakistan and the United States desperately need each other. America knows that any physical invasion of Pakistan would be a total disaster and it does not have resources to do so. Cutting off foreign aid or imposing sanctions will only make Pakistan gravitate towards China or Iran which are both unpalatable options for the US. The aid that America gives Pakistan has a long-term strategic advantage for both sides and should not be considered a quid pro quo for any particular action. If there is change made to the aid package, it should be to reduce military aid and increase civilian aid to strengthen Pakistan's fledgling democracy.
Both Pakistan and the United States have paid dearly for the “war on terror” and should stop trivializing each other’s sacrifices nor should they constantly question each others sincerity with misplaced patriotism. We cannot afford to erode the salience of the US-Pak relationship which may seem like a bad marriage to many but is one where divorce is not an option.