June Issue 2015
Cover Story: The Big Cover-Ups
he recent investigative report by the Pulitzer Prize-winning US journalist, Seymour Hersh, on the May 2, 2011, US raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hide-out and his subsequent killing at the hands of American seals, which was published in the London Review of Books, has picked many holes in the official versions of the incident emanating from both Washington and Islamabad. And, as expected, both the US and Pakistan governments have officially denied Hersh’s story.
Hersh has built his reputation on several earth-shaking stories which have been a major source of embarrassment to the US government as they uncovered many ugly official cover-ups like the Mai Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal. So, readers of Hersh’s report would be justified in believing his version rather than Washington’s official one. People will also find it easier to believe Hersh’s version because of the unexplained reluctance of the Pakistan government to make public the Abbottabad Judicial Commission’s report on the incident.
The Commission was set up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan at the request of the government of Pakistan on June 21, 2011, to probe into the chain of events leading up to the US’s unilateral military action inside Pakistani borders in Abbottabad. It was headed by senior Justice Javaid Iqbal. The commission examined 300 witnesses and reviewed 3,000 official documents over a period of two years and submitted the final 700-page report to the then prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, in January 2013. The report was marked as ‘classified’ by the government and no details of it were made public, despite persistent demands by public officials.
However, some portions of the report were leaked to the Qatar-based TV channel, Al-Jazeera, and the channel broadcast the story on July 8, 2013. There was no official denial of the text of the story. According to the Al-Jazeera report, former Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was able to hide in Pakistan for nine years due to the “collective failure” of the military and intelligence authorities.
The report also outlined how “routine” incompetence at every level of civil governance structure allowed the world’s most wanted man to move to six different locations within the country.
Moreover, through the testimony of bin Laden’s family members, intelligence officials and the wife of one of his couriers, the Commission was able to piece together a richly detailed image of bin Laden’s life on the run from authorities, including details on the secluded life that he and his family led in Abbottabad and elsewhere.
It found that bin Laden entered Pakistan in mid-2002, after narrowly escaping capture in the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001. Intelligence officials say he stayed briefly in the South Waziristan and Bajaur tribal areas of Pakistan, before moving to the northern Swat Valley to stay with his guards, Ibrahim and Abrar al-Kuwaiti, for several months.
While in Swat, bin Laden reportedly met with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks against the United States, in early 2003. A month later, Mohammad was captured in Rawalpindi in a joint US-Pakistani operation, and bin Laden fled Swat.
Bin Laden turned up next in the town of Haripur, in northern Pakistan, where he stayed for two years in a rented house with two of his wives and several children and grandchildren.
In August 2005, they all moved to a custom-built house with a huge compound in Abbottabad, a military garrison town located about 85 km away from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. He stayed there for six years, until he was killed in the US operation in May 2011.
According to the Commission’s investigations, Pakistan’s intelligence establishment had “closed the book” on bin Laden by 2005, and was no longer actively pursuing intelligence that could lead to his capture.
On the presence of a CIA support network in Pakistan to help track down bin Laden without the Pakistani establishment’s knowledge, the Commission determined that “this [was] a case of nothing less than a collective and sustained dereliction of duty by the political, military and intelligence leadership of the country.”
It also found that the US was able to violate Pakistani air space and carry out the raid unilaterally, due to an inaccurate and outdated threat assessment within the country’s defence and strategic policy establishments.
“Is it official or unofficial defence policy not to attempt to defend the country if threatened or even attacked by a military superpower like the US?” the Commission asked of several top military officers.
The military officers, including the chief of the country’s air force, testified that Pakistan’s low-level radar was on “peacetime deployment,” and hence not active on the border with Afghanistan when the raid occurred.
The report concludes that unless there are major changes in Pakistan’s defence strategy, it remains vulnerable to a repeat of such an airborne raid.
The Commission found that the country’s “military intelligence and political and bureaucratic leadership cannot be absolved of their responsibility for the state of governance, policy planning and policy implementation that eventually rendered this national failure almost inevitable,” and calls on key national leaders to formally apologise to the country for “their dereliction of duty.”
Al-Jazeera reported that its domain (www.aljazeera.com) was blocked for users in Pakistan shortly after it released the ‘Bin Laden Files’ at 15:00 GMT.
Page 197 of the report, which contains part of the testimony of Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then director of the ISI, was missing from all copies of the report that Al-Jazeera obtained from multiple sources.
If what the Al-Jazeera report has revealed is taken as the complete and correct version of the Abbottabad Commission report, then its suppression and subsequent leak to Al-Jazeera seems deliberate and almost designed to prepare people’s minds to question and doubt the veracity of versions such as the one revealed later by Hersh. Officially making public the Abbottabad Commission report would undermine the image of Pakistan’s security forces, but revealing the report through a leak, while keeping the image intact, would bring the credibility of stories such as Hersh’s into question, even if it were the real story.
But this is not the first report of any official commission to be suppressed. Pakistan’s history is replete with stories of many commissions whose reports were consigned to the back burner. Not so long ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a judicial commission, comprising three apex court judges including Justice Zaheer Jamali as its head, to probe into the attack on Hamid Mir. So far, nothing seems to have emerged out of this exercise.
In his time, former prime minister, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, constituted the Hamoodur Rehman Commission after the fall of Dhaka in 1971. This commission was mandated to inquire into the circumstances in which the force commander A.A.K. Niazi, eastern command, surrendered along with members of Pakistan’s armed forces. A ceasefire was ordered along the borders of West Pakistan and India, and along the ceasefire line in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This commission examined 213 witnesses and submitted its preliminary report in July 1972. The president ordered its review. It was resubmitted to him in 1974. But the Bhutto government did not divulge the findings of the commission and the report continues to remain classified. Its details were, however, made public in India in early 2000. It was a ruthless indictment of the army officers of the time, from top to bottom. But, by the time it was made public, most of the culprits had vanished from the scene and the pain and trauma of that event had, more or less, disappeared from the national psyche.
In May 1988, when a vast dump of bombs exploded, showering rockets and missiles all over the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area killing about 1,500 people, two enquiry commissions, one comprising civilians and the other the military, were set up to determine the causes behind it and affix responsibility. The dump was located right in the heart of Rawalpindi at Ojhri Camp, adjacent to the then ISI headquarters.
Shortly before the blasts at Ojhri Camp, it had been announced that an American team would be visiting Pakistan to audit the stocks and accounts of the weapons provided to the Pakistan Army through the ISI. The blasts destroyed all the records and most of the weapons, thus making it impossible for anyone to check the stocks or audit the accounts.
Two inquiries, one led by a military general and the other by the defence minister of the Junejo government, Rana Naeem, completed their reports soon after the incident, but both were dumped and never made public. The Committee headed by a general had come to the conclusion that General Zia’s right hand man, General Akhtar Abdul Rehman, along with other senior military officials, was involved. The report, presented within one week of the incident, called for the sacking of General Rehman, but General Zia rejected the findings.
The members of the civilian committee, on the other hand, could not reach a consensus on who was responsible for the Ojhri tragedy. In his remarks, the head of the committee, former NWFP Governor Aslam Khattak, concluded, “No one was responsible. It was an act of Allah.” However, Naeem, a hawk in the Junejo cabinet, prepared a non-paper which was signed by three of the five members of the political inquiry committee. The paper recommended the court martial of senior generals and laid the blame on General Akhtar Abdul Rehman. Many believe that this paper cost Junejo his government.
A book by Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, published a few months back, revealed that the CIA had stockpiled weapons in Pakistan to deal with remnants of Soviet-backed elements in Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout. These weapons, which were stored at the Ojhri Camp, blew up destroying $US 100 million worth of war equipment, comprising 30,000 rockets, millions of rounds of ammunition, a vast number of mines, Stingers, SA-7s, blowpipes, Milan anti-tank missiles, multiple-barrel rocket launchers and mortars. The book said General Zia called his ambassador in Washington, Jamsheed A. Marker, and asked him to tell the CIA and Charlie Wilson to replace the weapons. Within 24 hours, huge US cargo planes were unloading Stingers and other weapons into Pakistan directly from the frontline stores of NATO.
The truth behind the Ojhri Camp disaster is still shrouded in mystery. As is the real story behind the Kharotabad tragedy, in which four Chechens and one Tajik, including a seven-month pregnant Chechen woman, were shot dead by FC personnel and the Quetta police at an FC checkpoint on May 18, 2011. They were falsely accused of being suicide bombers.
The police surgeon, who later contradicted the official version, was also shot dead.
The Kharotabad inquiry report, finalised by Justice Mohammad Hashim Kakar of the Balochistan High Court, was submitted to the federal government. The then Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, read the report and marked it as a ‘restricted paper,’ and that was the end of the story.
Again, just last year, the report of the one-judge judicial commission, by Justice Baqir Ali Najfi of the Lahore High Court, was illegally suppressed because it had held the Punjab government “directly responsible” for the bloodbath at the Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Model Town, Lahore on June 17, 2014, in which 14 people were killed and 90 injured.
Justice Najfi also noted that the PAT workers had not fired a single bullet on the police. They had simply pelted stones when attempts were being made to remove the barriers outside the Minhaj Secretariat, which were erected with official permission; hence the Punjab government’s action was “illegal.” The judge concluded that the entire responsibility of the massacre rested on the shoulders of the Punjab government and police.
On the other hand, the judicial commission’s 146-page report on journalist Saleem Shahzad’s murder case (May 29, 2011) was made public. But it was rejected by the journalists’ union because it did not fix responsibility for the murder on any one. It only stated that the parliament should have oversight of the activities of intelligence agencies. In fact, it gave several recommendations on how to fix the “systemic causes of tension between agencies and the media.” After examining 41 witnesses, apart from accessing 33,000 emails of Shahzad, it could not even ascertain the motive behind the murder, and cited a lack of any “substantive piece of evidence” to pinpoint the murder on anyone.
The manner in which the reports by assorted commissions have been handled by successive governments, and the secrecy surrounding them, have put a big question mark on the veracity of every such undertaking. If they are not going to be made public, what is their purpose?
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.