It has been yet another uneasy week for Pakistan’s security establishment, adding to the bouts of embarrassment surrounding prior accounts of the country’s failure in dealing with notorious militants.
In the latest episode, the failure of Pakistan’s intelligence services in apprehending Osama Bin Laden has been highlighted in a telling account, following the leakage of an investigation into the life of the contemporary world’s most hunted terrorism mastermind.
Compiled by an independent commission appointed by the Pakistani government to investigate events leading to the 2011 US raid, which tracked and killed Bin Laden in the northern city of Abbottabad, the report offers minute but telling accounts of his decade-long run since the 9/11 New York terror attacks.
“The US acted like a criminal thug,” says the report in a scathing account of America, though it does not absolve Pakistan’s institutions of responsibility. It says: “Above all, the tragedy refers to the comprehensive failure of Pakistan to detect the presence of OBL [Osama Bin Laden] on its territory for almost a decade, or to discern the direction of US policy towards Pakistan that culminated in the avoidable humiliation of the people of Pakistan.”
According to the report, to remain a step ahead of the law, Bin Laden used methods such as wearing a cowboy hat to prevent being tracked from above, while quietly living in a vast residential compound in the vicinity of the Pakistan army’s top training academy in Abbottabad.
On at least one occasion, Bin Laden was stopped by a policeman for over-speeding while being driven through the northern Swat valley. The matter was conveniently resolved by greasing the policeman’s palm, repeating a familiar norm witnessed daily on Pakistan’s streets. Such accounts are hardly surprising in a country where the work of law enforcement agencies in daily life is often surrounded by controversies driven by sheer incompetence. For Pakistan, however, there are vital lessons to be learnt from this episode irrespective of the many failures.
More than a decade after the New York terror attacks unleashed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, with a resultant fallout for Pakistan, the latter’s ability to tackle the challenge of militancy remains in question.
Just days after the report became public, Pakistan’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, on Thursday made a point of visiting the headquarters of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) — the lead intelligence service. The commission’s report squarely targets the ISI, given the agency’s fundamental responsibility in hunting down Bin Laden. Sharif’s gesture has been widely seen as a bold attempt to oversee a closer cooperation between different intelligence services, given that the ISI has built a reputation of repeatedly being out on a tangent.
Often seen in the past for being out on a limb, the ISI has been previously tainted with accusations of working behind the scenes to influence political events in Pakistan. Eventually, the ISI’s critics have seen the agency pushing a military-backed agenda which periodically led to one regime change after another, rather than working as an independent service to protect Pakistan’s best interests.
Sharif has made a valid point in seeking to force the ISI to take the cue from the elected government. Yet, that very emphasis needs to be backed by follow-up actions that must demonstrate the government’s serious resolve towards reforming the country’s security establishment.
This is especially vital in view of recent experiences. The former government which stepped down in March this year, clearing the way for Sharif’s election, was widely seen to have done little in critical areas of reform. Notably, this included a failure to either devise a clear national security policy or to push a comprehensive debate in the parliament on security affairs.
Going forward beyond his visit to the ISI’s headquarters, Sharif must take the matter before the parliament for a comprehensive debate. The emphasis of such an exercise must essentially not only be on using the commission’s report to learn lessons from the Bin Laden case. More importantly, a parliamentary debate must review Pakistan’s history with a view to learning valuable lessons from the past, with a view to carving out a qualitatively new future.
Ultimately, lessons learnt from this exercise must be used to build a qualitatively better security environment. At the end of the day, the key litmus test must be able to demonstrate to ordinary Pakistanis that their security services are increasingly geared up to deal the challenge of tackling militancy. Otherwise, the commission’s report — that has stirred up much controversy in the past week — will remain a largely futile exercise.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.