The leaked bin Laden report has provided Pakistani PM Sharif with a timely opportunity to weaken the military establishment and to increase his own influence over foreign and security policy, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.
The official Pakistani report on the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, which has now been leaked to foreign media, is full of surprises. To start with, it demonstrates a high degree of thoroughness and honesty on the part of the authors and a willingness to analyze and criticize harshly the failings of Pakistan's institutions, including the armed forces and their intelligence wing, ISI. This in itself is highly unusual in Pakistan. The report speaks of “collective incompetence and negligence.” A devastating and at the same time worrying conclusion. But while it answers many questions it leaves others unanswered.
The first question is of course that of the timing. Why has the report – commissioned by the previous government in Islamabad – been released now – albeit by means of a leak to the media?
Despite denials that the leak was inspired by the government, there is only one person at the present time, who has an overriding interest in humiliating the military and intelligence establishment. That person is the country's new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was toppled by the military in a coup back in 1999.
Still in the early days of his premiership, Sharif has indicated that he wants a rapprochement with India, something the Pakistani military has consistently opposed over the decades. It regards India as the most dire threat to Pakistan. Moreover, it is suspected of being willing to use Islamist terrorists as surrogates to stoke tensions with India, not only in the disputed territory of Kashmir but most recently by means of the terrorist outrage in Mumbai in 2008.
The report has thus provided Sharif with a timely opportunity to weaken the military establishment and to pave the way to increase his own influence over foreign and security policy, traditionally the preserve of the generals.
The evidence against the military establishment contained in the report is indeed devastating. It accuses the intelligence community of ending the search for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan prematurely in 2005. The report clearly states that Osama is now known to have lived in the border areas of Pakistan after fleeing from Afghanistan in 2002 before moving deeper into Pakistan to the Swat valley and later to the northern military garrison town of Abbottabad, where the US Navy SEALs finally caught up with him. An effective intelligence organization would have been able to gather this information and capture the al Qaeda leader, concludes the report.
Why this evidence has only come to light now and why it was not acted upon years ago goes unanswered. Clearly Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, ISA chief until 2012, went to great lengths when giving evidence, to deflect the blame from his organization. He is quoted as saying in typically military fashion that the civilian security authorities could not be trusted in the fight against the Taliban and other domestic Islamist terrorists.
Not surprisingly, he did not comment on his own organization's efforts to nurture and control these groups to its own ends. Against this background the report concludes that support for bin Laden from rogue intelligence officers cannot be ruled out but clearly does not have enough evidence to point the finger.
This provides Sharif with an ideal opportunity to develop a political response to these catastrophic failings in the intelligence community, to announce reforms and to establish civilian control over the military intelligence service ISI and other counter-terrorist organizations once and for all. He should do so because this is a prerequisite for cementing democracy in place in Pakistan.
As far as the armed forces themselves are concerned, the report is equally devastating. The influence of Islamist extremists within the armed forces had long been underestimated, according to the report. The air force had failed to detect the US raiding partly because its radar systems were not operational. Air force officers only became aware of the incursion into their airspace after the raid had ended and the first pictures began appearing on Pakistan's TV channels. The word "farce" springs to mind when one considers how much US military equipment and aid the Pakistani military receives.
But Pakistan would not be Pakistan if it did not bite the hand that feeds it. The report cites Pasha admitting that there had been an agreement between Washington and Islamabad on allowing drone attacks on Pakistani territory, despite previous Pakistani denials. Moreover, it also reveals that the Americans actually provided the ISI with the telephone numbers of a close bin Laden aide. But ISI failed to follow up on these leads.
Later, this lead led the CIA to bin Laden's refuge in Abbottabad. In the face of this perceived lack of cooperation on the part of its “ally,” Washington clearly decided to pursue its war against Islamist insurgents and its search for bin Laden unilaterally and with a growing disregard for Pakistan's sovereignty.
But the report – despite documenting Pakistan's failures – cannot muster any understanding for the conclusions the Americans drew when faced with Pakistani stonewalling and incompetence. Instead, the US is roundly condemned for the raid that led to the killing of bin Laden and the continuation of the drone attacks.
This aspect of the report will please Sharif because it is very much in line with public sentiment in Pakistan. This presents him with an opportunity he appears to have seized with both hands. If he plays the hand the report has dealt him well, he may become the first Pakistani prime minister to assert himself vis-à-vis the military and ISI. The question is whether he has the nerve and the resolve to succeed.
Grahame Lucas is head of the South East Asia Department and of Asia Magazines at DW.