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Azeem Ibrahim

Azeem Ibrahim

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Was Pakistan Lying About Osama Bin Laden?

Posted: 05/17/11 08:38 PM ET

How could Osama bin Laden be living in a military town which has considerable security for six years without anyone realizing?

This was, after all, a town which housed a sizable military compound. It was a fairly affluent town, only thirty-five miles north of Islamabad. Osama bin Laden had lived since 2005 in a custom-built compound with perimeter walls six meters high topped with barbed wire, with no phone or internet connection and few windows, burning his trash inside the building instead of risking throwing anything away which could reveal who lived there.

This was not a house you could miss. And it was not a town where you chose to set up a house if you were terrified of being caught by the Pakistani military.

All this raises uncomfortable questions about how much the Pakistani government, military and intelligence agencies knew. Both current Pakistani President Zardari and the previous president General Musharraf said that Osama bin Laden was not in Pakistan. Many commentators have wondered aloud whether this is pure duplicity. How, after all, could the United States' public enemy number one, a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, and the most recognisable face of international jihadist terror, not be known to the Pakistani leadership? Very grave questions are currently being asked at the highest levels in the U.S. about Pakistan's credibility as an ally in the light of these revelations.

But the answer is that when both Presidents said that Osama bin Laden was not in Pakistan, it is in fact unlikely that they were lying. They didn't need to. They probably knew nothing about it.

Both Pakistan's army and its intelligence service, the ISI, are both alarmingly independent of the government which finances them. Over its six decades or so of history, Pakistan has alternated wildly between democracy and dictatorship, and the military and the ISI have traditionally been two of the most stable institutions in the country.

Unlike any given government, the military and the ISI were guaranteed to survive the transition from democracy to dictatorship, or vice versa. This has allowed the army and the ISI to become culturally and organizationally distinct from the government, and from government oversight.

There is simply no tradition of formal institutional oversight over both organisations. Even if an officer in the army or the intelligence services knew about bin Laden's whereabouts or suspected that he lived in the town, there is no reason to believe that the message would have passed back up and reached the President.

To give you an idea of how minimal the oversight is, you might expect the civilian governance at least to oversee the military and intelligence budgets -- after all, they pay them. Traditionally, the army has submitted to the government a budget consisting of a bottom-line figure -- which the government is legally bound to approve, under Article 82 of the Constitution. In 2008, it began to submit a budget which ran to two-pages, with breakdowns under six separate headings. It had taken a long and hard-fought political battle to win this concession.

Not only that, but there are other reasons why the army and Intelligence services would have been disinclined to pass on any knowledge about bin Laden's whereabouts up the chain of command. Not least that the ISI has well-documented Islamist sympathies itself. This was borne of its many connections with the Afghan fighters against the USSR in the 1980s, as well as its orientation towards seeing any threat as coming from India and belittling any threat which does not.

The third aspect is the incredible power of the Pakistani army. It is not just an army. It dominates the country's economy. By virtue of being one of the most organised forces in the country, it has also become one of the richest and largest industrial, banking, and landowning bodies in Pakistan. This goes hand-in-hand with profiteering from military budgets, and the creation of networks of political patronage by. The army, for example, is known to co-opt existing political parties through threats and bribes.

Given this status quo, even if there was a suspicion that the compound in Abbotabad contained Osama bin Laden, and even if it had been reported, his existence there would have been an embarrassment to the Pakistani army who trained in the town, and a disruption to its business as usual. America is incredibly unpopular in Pakistan, and however sympathetic Pakistan's government to American aims of finding bin Laden, the government would have found it difficult to have a reluctant army or intelligence agency follow through.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com

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Follow Azeem Ibrahim on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AzeemIbrahim