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On the Line

Al-Qaida cell phones confirmed Pakistani complicity in the hiding of Osama Bin Laden. That country’s military and intelligence patronage of terrorism requires the United States to take a harder line there.

Bruce Riedel
June 27, 2011
Abottabad, Pakistan.(Getty Images)
Abottabad, Pakistan.(Getty Images)

The May 1 commando strike in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama Bin Laden demonstrated one thing conclusively: that the United States cannot rely on Pakistan to deal with the al-Qaida threat. We don’t know for sure yet if the Pakistani intelligence service, or ISI, was clueless or actively complicit in hiding the most wanted man in the world, who was living a mile down the road from the Kakul military academy, the country’s West Point. In either case the ISI is not a reliable or effective counter-terrorist partner.

Now the evidence is growing that at least some part of the ISI and the Pakistani army was, in fact, actively complicit in hiding Bin Laden for the past five years. The evidence laid out Friday in the New York Times and based on cell phones found in the hideout is not a smoking gun, but it is very suggestive. Bin Laden was in regular contact with the Harakat ul Mujahedin terror group, which the ISI created in the 1980s to fight India. The Harakat ul Mujahedin has loyally worked with the ISI for decades, and its members hijacked an Indian airliner in 1999 with al-Qaida and the ISI. Fazlur Rehman Khalil, head of Harakat ul Mujahedin, lives openly in an Islamabad suburb.

If Harakat helped Bin Laden, it is not hard to imagine that someone in the ISI knew that the world’s most wanted terrorist was been hidden somewhere inside Pakistan.

There is other circumstantial evidence of official Pakistani complicity in hiding Bin Laden. The commandant of the Kakul academy in 2006 was General Nadeem Taj, the right-hand man of former President Pervez Musharraf. After his service in Abbottabad, Taj became director general of the ISI in late 2007. On his watch, the ISI blew up the Indian embassy in Kabul and Benazir Bhutto was murdered by al-Qaida. The U.N. investigation of Benazir’s murder held the ISI as possibly culpable.

In September 2008, the George W. Bush Administration demanded that Taj be fired. Instead, he was promoted to corps commander. The terrorist attacks on Mumbai came a month later, and we know the ISI helped plan that. Taj had the means and access in 2006 to help Bin Laden, and he is clearly a problematic partner. Not a smoking gun by any means, but suggestive.

Pakistan is home to more terrorists than any other country, many of them harbored by the Pakistani army and the ISI. Osama Bin Laden’s deputy and now heir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is probably somewhere nearby. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the tactical maestro of the Sept. 11 attacks, was living in Pakistan’s military capital, Rawalpindi, when he was captured (albeit with the ISI’s help). Mullah Omar, Emir of Believers to al-Qaida and head of the Afghan Taliban, was trained by the ISI and commutes between Quetta and Karachi. Hafez Saed, head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamist group, and mastermind of the Mumbai massacre, lives and preaches openly in Lahore. Dawood Ibrahim, who killed hundreds with bombs on Mumbai’s metro in 1993, lives in Karachi. There are no secrets here—the south Asian press reports their hideouts on a regular basis.

Pakistan’s civilian government is not implicated in any of this. Nor is Pakistan al-Qaida’s patronage akin to Iran’s role with Hezbollah. Pakistan is as much a victim of terror as its sponsor. It is a maze of contradictions. Analogies to the Cold War partnerships that matched patron state to terrorist group don’t work in Pakistan. The army sponsors some groups like Harakat and Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it is at war with others like the Pakistan Taliban. In the case of other terror groups like al-Qaida, the government is infiltrated by sympathizers. These varying relationships pose unique challenges that need tailored responses.

So, what should the United States do with Pakistan? First, we should tell the Pakistani army leadership that if we learn one of their officers is involved in harboring terrorists, planning terror operations, or tipping terrorist bomb factories off to drone raids, we will make it personal. Don’t sanction the country or the ISI; sanction individuals. Hold them accountable. That officer will go on our terrorist most-wanted list, and we will seize his property if we can, arrest him if he travels, expel his kids from school here or in England, and—if he is truly dangerous enough—take direct action. We should not do this alone. We should get allies, especially the British, to help, since Pakistanis love to visit London and send their kids to school in the United Kingdom.

Second, we will need a base to stage unilateral operations into Pakistan for the foreseeable future. We can hope al-Qaida will implode soon, but we cannot count on that. The Arabian Sea is too far away. So, we need a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan so we can continue to send drones and commandos over the Pakistani border. We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, but we do need Afghan permission to operate in that country for the long term. That is the other hard lesson of Abbottabad.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and the author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has advised four presidents on the National Security Council staff in the White House. His latest book is Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad.