The Abbottabad Commission: What Pakistan Must Learn After the bin Laden Raid

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Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

A young boy plays with a tennis ball in front of the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos reportedly killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 5, 2011

In 1971, Pakistan suffered its worst military defeat to India. The war led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh — what had been East Pakistan, separated from the western wing by a thousand miles of Indian territory, and home to half the country’s population. In what remained of Pakistan, the humiliation prompted furious questions about the cruelties inflicted on the local Bengali-speaking population, the intelligence failures and the abuses of power that had plunged the young country to its lowest point.

To answer these questions, a high-powered commission was established. It was led by the Chief Justice of the time, Hamoodur Rahman, a distinguished Bengali jurist. He and his colleagues produced a searing report that recommended, among other things, trials for “those who indulged in these atrocities” and visited “acts of wanton cruelty” on the local population. But the report was suppressed. It only emerged in portions decades later, in 2000, in leaks to the local media. (The full report was declassified later that year.)

The Pakistani surrender at Dhaka was seen as the moment of the country’s greatest shame until the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Navy SEALs had successfully managed to penetrate Pakistani airspace, land in the garrisoned town of Abbottabad, kill the al-Qaeda leader and leave barely noticed. Pakistanis were angered by a violation of their sovereignty by an ally. And they were appalled that the world’s most wanted man had been living among them undetected for years.

(MORE: Pakistan’s bin Laden Report: What You Need to Know)

To find out what happened, Pakistan’s Parliament established another high-powered commission. It was partly inspired by the Hamoodur Rahman Commission that looked into the events of 1971. If it weren’t for a leak this week, their findings might also have remained suppressed for decades. On Monday, al-Jazeera published 336 pages of the “Abbottabad Commission” report. Like its predecessor, it is a searing document. Shortly after it was published, the news channel’s website was blocked in Pakistan.

There are some juicy details. Children, we learn, taunted bin Laden as the “poor uncle.” The al-Qaeda founder also decided to disguise himself by revealing more of his face. On one occasion, the police stopped a car that was carrying him in the Swat Valley — where 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed visited bin Laden — only to fail to recognize “the tall clean-shaven Arab.” At other times, he dressed like the man who started the “war on terror” to get him, former U.S. President George W. Bush, by wearing a cowboy hat. Some of his associates were even unaware of who he was, until they saw him watching himself on al-Jazeera.

The pan-Arab channel was apparently a favorite. Unable to get it through his cable subscription, the report says, bin Laden set up a satellite dish in his Abbottabad home. The property also had separate supplies of electricity and gas. In 2005, when an earthquake struck the area, the boundary wall of the compound lay collapsed in rubble for months, and yet bin Laden somehow managed to remain unexposed.

As we find out, the property was bought through a fake identity card. The construction of a third story was illegal but went unchallenged. No tax was paid, and at one point, the heavily occupied house was even declared uninhabited. But it may have been more a case of serial snafus than sinister scheming, the report suggests. “Either OBL was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone committed to doing his job honestly,” the report notes, referring to bin Laden by his initials, “or there was a complete collapse of governance.”

This sorry tale of Pakistan’s crumbling institutions is also told vividly by the local police’s failures. When the raid was happening, the report reveals, the provincial police chief’s only response was to sit at home and watch television. At one point, the commission encountered a bumbling Abbottabad-based criminal investigator with a weakness for conspiracy theories. The man swore that he was “100% sure” that bin Laden wasn’t present in the property, and in the next breath he says bin Laden could have been brought there as part of a “CIA plot.”

(MORE: Can This Alliance Be Saved? Salvaging the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship)

The commission described the man as unprofessional and incompetent. But they also took pity on him, citing him as a product of the “degradation of the institution he represented.” Time and again, local security and administration officials said the Abbottabad area was known to be a sanctuary for militants and their families. And yet, there was no policy put in place to pursue them — or their leader, who had also traveled to nearby Haripur. “Their actual role in counterterrorism was at best marginal,” the report says, “and in the tracking of OBL it was precisely zero.”

Some of the police officers simply shrugged that it wasn’t their job. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency took responsibility for security matters. In a rare inside look at how the military spies operate, the report details the police and other officials being constantly shunted aside. The work of the commission itself was being tracked. At an invitation-only meeting with local journalists, one spy managed to inveigle entry, before being spotted and asked to leave.

The report expresses deep concerns over the chance that rogue elements within the ISI abetted bin Laden during his stay in Pakistan. “The possibility of some such direct or indirect and ‘plausibly deniable’ support cannot be ruled out, at least, at some level outside formal structures of the intelligence establishment,” it reads. Elsewhere, it states: “In the premier intelligence institution, religiosity replaced accountability.”

The lack of a coordinated strategy is said to be one of the reasons behind the failure to catch bin Laden. The local ISI commander told the commission that he had been searching the area for two years, and had snatched Umar Patek, one of the Bali bombers, who later told Indonesian authorities he had gone there to visit bin Laden. Another ISI team had caught Abu Faraj al-Libbi, another high-profile al-Qaeda leader.

In one of its hardest-hitting passages, the report says: “It is a glaring testimony to the collective incompetence and negligence, at the very least, of the security and intelligence community in the Abbottabad area.” The ISI is chided for “closing the book” on bin Laden in 2005. The politicians fare little better. Some offer self-serving excuses for their failures; others, we are told, don’t even bother to read basic documents.

The report’s authors — a serving Supreme Court judge, a retired army corps commander, a former envoy to Washington and New Delhi, and a retired top cop — described their report as neither a “witch hunt nor a whitewash.” Indeed, it is an admirable attempt at collective scrutiny. And the self-examination is painful.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is now faced with two clear choices. He can forget about the report, and shelve it alongside Rahman’s inquiry into the 1971 war, and let the state slide further toward failure. Or he can absorb the report’s contents and heed the clarion call for massive institutional reform. Rather than worrying about the source of the leak — Islamabad’s initial response — the government should read the report and act on it.

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