By Najam Sethi
15 May 2015
Seymour Hersh is “l’enfant terrible” of the American establishment. He has now stunned the world by an extraordinary conspiracy theory about the US military operation to kill Osama bin Laden in a compound near Pakistan’s top military academy in Abbotabad in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
Essentially, Hersh tells the following story and sprinkles it with a lot of names and details based on un-named US intelligence sources. (1) OBL was in the ISI’s “protective” custody from the day he set foot in the custom-made Abbotabad hideout in 2005-06. (2) A Pakistani military officer walked into the US embassy in late 2010, spilled the beans, collected $25m in reward money and was whisked away along with his family and settled in America by US officials. (3) In the following months, the Americans used the services of a couple of Pakistani doctors, including Dr Shakil Afridi, to determine that the man in the compound was indeed OBL. (4) Then they confronted COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and DGISI Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha with the evidence and told them to secretly cooperate with their plan to extract OBL, or else they would tell the world that the two generals were consciously protecting the world’s most dangerous terrorist in their backyard, and impose severe hardships on them personally and on Pakistan generally. (5) Faced with Hobson’s choice—damned if they did and damned if they didn’t – Generals Kayani/Pasha bought into the US plan to secretly facilitate the Navy Seals’ helicopter raid so that the US could later claim that OBL had been found in some distant mountainous region and taken out by a drone. (6) But the plan went awry when one of the helicopters crashed and President Obama had to reveal details of the raid, leaving Generals Kayani/ Pasha red-faced before charges of complicity or incompetence at home.
This story is at variance with the official US-Pak version that claims that the Pakistanis were caught unawares by the US raid and had no direct hand in the hiding, capture and killing of OBL. Indeed, Pakistani officials have offered a bagful of explanations to clarify that they were not hiding OBL and they did not have the requisite electronic wherewithal to spot and track the US helicopters from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Abbotabad in Pakistan and back. The problem of disbelief in this version has been highlighted by their refusal to make public the findings of the Abbotabad Judicial Commission that investigated the matter.
The explanation by Generals Pervez Musharraf, Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha that they were not hiding OBL has never washed at home and abroad. So they, along with General Pervez Musharraf and his DGISI Nadeem Taj during whose earlier time as commandant of the Kakul military academy OBL was relocated to Abbotabad, would have been in deep trouble with the world community if they had been found out. Equally, Hersh’s claim that the two sides agreed to the extraction method in advance with assistance by Pakistan makes no sense. Why, if the two sides were in cahoots, should they sanction the dangerous raid when, after being found out, Generals Kayanai/Pasha could have quietly handed him over to the Americans who could have taken him to some place in the north and claimed to have droned him on the basis of its own brilliant intelligence? This way, the Pakistanis would not have been embarrassed abroad by the accusation of hiding OBL, nor criticized at home for handing him over to the US. In fact, Generals Kayani/Pasha could not possibly have connived with the US in facilitating the raid as meticulously painted by Hersh because that would have required them to take into confidence not just the Chief of Air Staff, the CJCSC and several other high and low officers but also to seek their active support in the mission, a huge risk that could not have been taken if the target were in the backyard of the top military academy in an urban military town like Abbotabad. But no-mans land in the north where there are no eyes and ears was a different matter.
This logic is borne out both by the level of distrust between the two sides that existed before the raid and the hostility of the Pakistanis after it. Before the raid, tensions between the CIA and ISI had built up, most notably over the refusal of the Pak military to take action against the Haqqani network and LeT in North Waziristan, and the unpleasant, tense, long drawn out Raymond Davis affair. It was accentuated by the natural suspicion that OBL couldn’t be so brazenly living in Abbotabad without the ISI’s protection. These factors persuaded the Americans to go it alone – since 9/11, this was the first time that a joint operation against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s urban areas was ruled out, despite such joint-ops having netted over 20 top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the basis of standard operating procedures (SOP – CIA Intel to identify target + Pak ground forces to raid and capture). After the raid, the
Pakistanis retaliated by putting Dr Shakil Afridi in irons despite shrill and threatening calls for his release by US Congressmen and Senators, by outing the CIA station chief in Islamabad and later by cutting off NATO supplies following the Salala incident. The Americans hit back when, on the eve of his departure, CJCSC Admiral Mike Mullen publicly accused the ISI of being “a veritable arm of the Haqqani network”.
One explanation can be offered that combines elements of the three versions – Pakistani, American and Hersh’s – into a highly plausible scenario. The night raid was expected to be a very high-risk affair if the Pakistanis were not in the loop. It risked becoming Obama’s “botch-up” on the eve of his re-election just as the Iran hostage rescue crisis became for President Jimmy Carter in 1979-80. Perhaps, therefore, the Americans actually took Generals Kayani/Pasha into confidence to the extent of telling them the fib that they had located a “very high value target” (maybe Ayman al Zawahiri but definitely not OBL) somewhere in the mountains in the north of Pakistan and were going to dispatch an extract-and-kill Seal team from Afghanistan to nail him and requested their cooperation in not disrupting the operation. This would explain the relative ease with which the US raid was conducted. It would also explain why the Pakistanis gave their permission because they thought it would be a failed mission since they knew that there was no high value target like OBL in the target area. It would, finally, explain their rage and frustration when the low-flying helicopters veered off course at the last minute and went to Abbotabad instead of further north.
The two sides had connived with and lied to each other, but one had double-crossed the other successfully, so their secret would remain buried between them.
Seymour Hersh is on the right track. But there are errors of omission and commission in his story that erode its authenticity, like that of the cover stories of both Pakistan and America. The truth lies somewhere in-between.