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Pakistan

Pakistan's bin Laden report could be a 'cover-up'

Experts say that a leaked Osama bin Laden report could be an attempt to cover up those in Pakistan who actually knew about the former al Qaeda head's whereabouts.

A leaked bin Laden report has hugely embarrassed the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies. Made public by the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera on Monday, the Pakistani judicial commission reveals that collective failures, incompetency and negligence on part of the country's authorities allowed al Qaeda's former head Osama bin Laden to live in Pakistan undetected for more than nine years.

The five-member Abbottabad Commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge Javed Iqbal, was set up by the previous Asif Ali Zardari-led government to investigate the circumstances leading up to the US covert raid in the northwestern Pakistani city of Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 where bin Laden was killed. The commission interviewed more than 200 people, including senior civilian and military officials, and also bin Laden's three widows, who were living with their husband in the compound. The findings of the report were kept secret until Al Jazeera published them. It is not clear who leaked the report.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, Sunday, May 1, 2011, in Washington (Photo:The White House, Pete Souza/AP/dapd)

US-Pakistani ties deteriorated in the aftermath of bin Laden's assassination

Pakistan's powerful military, which controls security-related policies, refused to comment on the leaked report - which did not accuse any person of complicity in protecting bin Laden - but it also did not rule out the possibility of a degree of "plausibly deniable" support from current or former officials.

"It is unnecessary to specify the names as its obvious who they are," the 336-page classified document stated. "It may be politically unrealistic to suggest punishment for them […] But as honorable men, they ought to do the honorable thing, including submitting a formal apology to the nation for their dereliction."

Intelligence expert and former high-ranking CIA and Pentagon official, Bruce Riedel, says the results of the Pakistani inquiry are very consistent with earlier reports based on American sources. "It does fill in a few important details like exactly when bin Laden moved to Abbottabad (August 2005) but it is most revealing in discussing the Pakistani side of the story."

Incompetence or complicity?

Some western analysts, however, are not ready to accept that Pakistan's ubiquitous security agencies were only "negligent" in failing to locate bin Laden's Abbottabad house. They think they were actually protecting him.

Rolf Tophoven, director of the German-based Institute for Terrorism Research & Security Policy (IFTUS), regards the report as "an attempt to cover up those in Pakistan who actually knew about bin Laden's whereabouts and get them off the hook." The expert told DW that by claiming that the authorities were incompetent, the inquiry whitewashed those members of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), who, he claims, knew that the al Qaeda founder was hiding in their country.

"The ISI isn't by far as negligent as the report claims it to be," Tophoven said. He believes the intelligence agency has always kept a close eye on events unfolding in Pakistan's northwestern tribal regions and is known to have had links to al Qaeda before the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

It is precisely because of these connections and a lack of trust that Tophoven believes the US didn't inform Pakistani authorities about the impending raid on the residential compound in Abbottabad, not far from a military academy. "I believe they kept Pakistan in the dark until the operation was well underway because they were worried that bin Laden would be tipped off."

This view is shared by intelligence expert Riedel: "Whether through incompetence or complicity, or more likely both, the Pakistani security establishment can not be trusted to fight al Qaeda. That is as true today as in 2011."

Irrespective of that, most experts agree the leak is unlikely to have the slightest effect on US-Pakistani relations. "For the next 12 to 24 months, these relations will be dictated by the constraints of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan," said Frederic Grare from the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Impact on domestic politics

Grare, however, thinks that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's newly-elected government should consider this report a blessing. “It accuses the Pakistani security establishment of incompetence which contributes to delegitimize the same security establishment, reinforcing, at least temporarily, the hand of the civilians in their dealings with the military," said Grare.

Michel Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agrees: "The harsh criticism toward the military leadership is arguably the biggest takeaway from this report. It is exceedingly rare for the security establishment to come in for such harsh treatment from within Pakistan."

Supporters of the Pakistani religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Nazriati group) burn representation of US flag at a pro-Osama bin Laden rally in Quetta, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 2, 2012
(Photo: Arshad Butt/AP/dapd)

For Pakistani extremists, bin Laden was a 'hero' fighting against the US

Kugelman points out that given the beating the military takes in the report, the new government will have "some added leverage should it choose to assert its independence from the military," particularly in the areas of security and foreign policy which are traditionally the domains of the military.

But Pakistani analysts doubt that the Pakistani military or the ISI officials are going to apologize to the nation or that Prime Minister Sharif will take the institutions or the persons involved to task.

'It's time to rein in the military'

"It is a clear indictment of the military and its agencies," senior Pakistani journalist and political commentator Saleem Asmi told DW. However, Asmi thinks that Sharif is not powerful enough to try the generals over their alleged involvement in a case which has caused the Islamic Republic a great deal of humiliation. "It is high time that the civilian authorities assert themselves and rein in the military."

Ghaffar Hussain, a London-based researcher and counter-terrorism expert, has a similar view. He told DW it was too early to expect that Sharif's government would confront the army. "He [Sharif] has just come to power. Though he has a strong political mandate, I don't think he would like to overstretch himself at the moment."

Unlike other experts, Hussain believes it is wrong to assume that the Pakistani military is a monolithic institution. "Even within the military there are factions which are doing different things." Pakistani activists have demanded a reaction from the government and expect it to implement the report's recommendations.