We will probably never know a lot of what transpired in that shabby villa in Abbottabad but what we do know is that the release of information has been dreadfully mismanaged by the White House and calls into question whether anyone there is interested in much more than making themselves look good or damaging someone else.
The number of stories emerging from the White House and immediately being contradicted by the White House, and in the process leaving the White House spokescritter, Jay Carney, resembling a stunned mullet, include: which of bin Laden’s sons was killed, bin Laden using a woman as a shield, his wife being killed, bin Laden firing at US forces, the raid being monitored in real time, and the cause of the helicopter crash.
We also can say with some degree of certainty that we’ve been misled on the involvement of Pakistan.
Oddly enough, the one area that everyone seems to have fallen over themselves in agreeing about was Pakistan’s involvement in the operation. While bin Laden’s carcass was still cooling anyone who was anyone in Pakistan was claiming there were no consultations. CIA Director Leon Panetta joined the chorus in rubbing the nose of the Pakistanis in their own unreliability.
But the CIA ruled out participating with its nominal South Asian ally early on because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets,” Panetta says.
To set the stage for this one has to take into consideration the nature of Abbottabad. It was founded by a British general and, under British rule, was the administrative center of the Hazara District of Punjab. Since independence it has remained a garrison town. It currently is the headquarters of two infantry regiments, the Baloch Regiment and the Frontier Force Regiment. In addition, the compound where bin Laden was killed is about 300 yards from a police station, about half that distance from a university, and half a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. It is also very close to Kashmir. So bin Laden’s hideout was in a residential area, in a heavily garrisoned town, close by a disputed frontier.
The main concern, again from Panetta, was the Pakistani reaction, again from TIME:
Some of the aides had been involved in the Carter Administration’s effort to go after the hostages held by the Iranians 30 years ago; others had been involved in the ill-fated “Black Hawk Down” raid against Somali warlords in 1993. “What if you go down and you’re in a firefight and the Pakistanis show up and start firing?” Panetta says some worried. “How do you fight your way out?”
A very real concern that we will touch more upon later. On any raid getting into the objective and accomplishing your mission tends to be the easiest part of the planning process. Getting out with your skin mostly intact is always the hardest nut to crack. And how do you unscrew the situation created by having your armed forces in a fire fight with the armed forces of an ostensible ally, and ally who controls your supply routes into Afghanistan, in the middle of one of their cities?
The scenario, as we’ve been told, unfolds like this: Around 2am a helicopter crashes into a residential neighborhood, in this otherwise quiet garrison town not far from a contested border region. There are immediate explosions as breaching charges cut holes in the walls and doors of the bin Laden’s compound and a 40 minute fire fight ensues. As the gunfight winds down there is an explosion as the disabled helicopter is demolished and another, larger and noisier, helicopter arrives on the scene. Then both helicopters fly away.
No local constable decided to mope over to the crash site. No fire trucks or ambulances scrambled to the scene. The gun fight, even though it was tweeted live, didn’t provoke a response from either the police or either of the infantry regiments garrisoned in the city.
A lot of dogs didn’t bark, so to speak.
What we know about the raid, and I use the work “know” very advisedly, is that it apparently consisted of three helicopters. Two of the helicopters were MH-60 variants, one was apparently an MH-47. At least one story mentions a fourth helicopter of undefined type. The number of shooters involved was about 20, according to latest reports, with more than likely additional personnel involved in the intelligence exploitation of the objective.
The critical piece missing from this picture is a security element for the assault force. If, as Panetta suggests, one of the concerns was that Pakistani security forces would show up and start shooting the raiding force, more likely than not, would have contained a security force to stop anyone from interfering with the operation. The last thing you’d want is a couple of dozen SEALs sandwiched between an unknown number of al Qaeda fighters with bin Laden and a couple of Pakistani infantry battalions. Typically this security element would have been a contingent from the Ranger Regiment. For instance, in the prisoner snatch that led to the Battle of Mogadishu, a small Delta contingent was used to attempt to capture a Somali warlord while a company of Rangers sealed off the objective area. This contingent would have added another 40 persons to the raid and at least one, or maybe two, MH-47s.
Even if we can explain the absence of curiosity on the part of Pakistani security forces and emergency services by incompetence we are still confronted with both the absence of a security force, and a rather, in my opinion, leisurely amount of time the raiders spent on the objective when every minute exponentially increased the chance that Pakistani police or army would arrive on the scene.
In my view, this all leads to the conclusion that the local Pakistani officials were complicit in the raid. They may not have know when it was coming but they knew enough not to send out police, fire, or military personnel to the scene until after everything was over.
And then there is the former head of Pakistan’s ISI who insists that not only was there security but the Pakistanis provided it:
Lieutenant General Durrani, however, said that the denial was a “political” maneuver by the intelligence services to avoid claims that they were working too closely with the US.
He said: “It is more likely that they did know [about the raid]. It is not conceivable that it was done without the involvement of Pakistani security forces at some stage. They were involved and they were told they were in position.
“The army chief was in his office, the cordons had been thrown around that particular place. The Pakistani helicopters were also in the air so that indicates that it was involved.
Was the national leadership in on the raid? We can’t know. We can suspect from the speed with which Panetta said the Pakistanis were cut out and the Pakistanis claim they were cut out of the mission that maybe both are being somewhat parsimonious with the truth. The claim that Pakistan scrambled fighters to intercept the raiders, when neither their police nor army showed any inclination to do so despite being within an easy walk of the scene also sounds suspicious. Going a bit farther, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said in an interview:
Mr Smith disputed a suggestion the Pakistan government knew bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“It doesn’t follow from that that Pakistan or the Pakistan state or the Pakistan government was knowingly harbouring,” he told ABC Television today.
US President Barack Obama praised Pakistan for helping US forces kill and capture bin Laden, and had rung Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to thank him, Mr Smith said.
The minister also disputed an assertion the US didn’t notify the Pakistan government of bin Laden’s death.
“It’s clear to me from President Obama’s comments that he was pleased with Pakistan’s assistance,” Mr Smith said.
This makes sense when one considers that early reports were that the raid was staged out of Tarbela Ghazi air base in Pakistan:
From Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, the modified MH-60 helicopters made their way to the garrison suburb of Abbottabad, about 30 miles from the center of Islamabad. Aboard were Navy SEALs, flown across the border from Afghanistan, along with tactical signals, intelligence collectors, and navigators using highly classified hyperspectral imagers.
Later reports claim that the raid was launched from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Either site it well within range of the MH-60 but Jalalabad is 160 miles, or about an hour, away. Tarbela Ghazi is about 35 miles away. All things being equal you’d prefer the shorter distance for the sake of simplicity and reduced fatigue on the part of your troops.
At a minimum if there was no “official” cooperation there appears to be significant coordination between elements of the Pakistan government and the US government on this raid. To the extent this cooperation was unitary or to which it was facilitated by cash transactions we’ll probably never know. But it would have been the height of irresponsibility to send a small raiding force into an ostensibly hostile environment without providing protection for the raiders. It would have been equally irresponsible to send in a security force and risk a full fledged gun battle between US troops and Pakistani security forces. And I can’t believe that any military commander would have let that happen.