IPCS Review

Pakistan: The Abbottabad Commission of Enquiry

09 Jul, 2013    ·   4027

Rana Banerji reviews the Commission of Enquiry Report on the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad

Rana Banerji
Rana Banerji
Distinguished Fellow

It is hardly surprising that the Abbottabad Commission of Enquiry report on the May 02, 2011 attack successfully eliminating Osama bin Laden (OBL) should finally have surfaced through an Al Jazeera leak, a good six months after it had been submitted to the Pakistani government but deemed a `classified’ document  in January,2013.

Constituted under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1956 in June, 2001 by a beleaguered PPP government `desperate to distance itself from the disaster’, only after a joint Parliamentary resolution demanded it, the Commission had serious teething problems. Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, then senior most sitting judge of the Supreme Court expressed willingness to head it only if approved by Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhry, who was apparently not consulted initially. Another eminent judge, Justice (retd) Fakhruddin Ebrahim backed out on flimsy grounds. The Supreme Court Bar Association and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) criticized its composition. Ultimately, it was set up with four members including retired diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Lt Gen(retd) Nadeem Ahmed and retired Punjab Police IG, Abbas Khan, who eventually declined to sign the report. Ms. Nargis Sethi, then Cabinet Secretary was made Member Secretary.

The 338 page report revealed by Al Jazeera refers to 201 witnesses whereas earlier media reports in Pakistan suggested it was a 700 page report examining more than 300 witnesses. It traces the events leading up to the May 01 night attack by US seals on the two storey premises in Abbottabad , where Osama bin Laden stayed with his two wives and extended family from 2005 onwards. It accepts OBL’s presence in Pakistan since 2002, first in Federally Administered Tribal Areas, then in Swat and also that of his family members, in Karachi safe houses.

In a surprisingly scathing indictment, it concludes that Pakistan’s Military and political leaders `collectively displayed a degree of incompetence and irresponsibility which was truly breathtaking’ and the `worst failure since 1971’. There was `extensive complacency, inefficiency and negligence’ not only of local civil administrative, police or military officials `but comprehensive and sustained failure of intelligence and security agencies’ in not being able to detect OBL’s presence. It unerringly flags the historical course of civil- military relations in the country as a contributory factor, blaming the `military’s exercise of authority in policy and administration, for which it neither had constitutional or legal authority, nor necessary expertise and competence’. It holds it “unnecessary to specifically name them (those responsible) because it is obvious who they are”, though adding that “it may be politically unrealistic to suggest punishments for them (!)”. It suggests `grave complicity at an undetermined level’ for this `collective failure of the military, political and civil administration’.

The Commission examined several senior officials during its 18 month existence including the then Interior and Defence Ministers, field commanders of the Pakistan Air Force and the Director General, Inter Services Intelligence. The Prime Minister, President or Army Chief did not depose before it. The Commission records the remarkably candid admission of helplessness by Defence Minister, Ahmed Mukhtar in influencing any matters of Defence policy because of the pervasive superiority of the Military in such matters.

The Commission did not find conclusive evidence of any deliberate complicity on part of ISI officials but did not rule out possibility of support by rogue elements within or plausible denial of such support outside formal structures of the Intelligence establishment. The deposition of Lt Gen Shuja Pasha, former DG, ISI brings out tellingly how it had to perforce take on Counter Terrorism responsibilities though this was not part of its charter of duties specified in 1975. Civilian agencies like the Intelligence Bureau or the local police just did not measure up. Pasha blames Musharraf for handing over High Value Targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Khalid bin Attash too quickly to the United States before the ISI could interrogate them thoroughly. He laments the lack of trust which developed between the ISI and the CIA. According to him, `American arrogance knew no limits in its dealings with Pakistan’. Though opining against civilian control of ISI, Pasha grudgingly supports the need for political initiatives to invest legal cover for intelligence agencies.

Examining defence preparedness in the context of the US air raid, the Commission rues `the India focus’ of Pakistan’s security mandarins and `defence capabilities designed and developed for one front conflict, ignoring the `less important’ western border.  Air Defence on the Western sector remained in ` peacetime mode’- the PAF radars were` neither jammed nor switched off’ but were just not capable of detecting US aircraft having stealth capabilities.

Among recommendations for the future, the Abbottabad Commission cautions against a revival of the Army’s Green Book ideology of too pervasive a role and suggests instead, `honest, competent and consultative’ leadership to democratically enunciate `a national security policy, establish a National Security Council and bring in comprehensive intelligence and police reforms. It also advocates `dismantling of terrorist infrastructure’ which has had such deleterious `blow back effects’ on the security establishment in recent years. Far from remaining a whitewash, the report has the potential to redefine civil military relations and help stabilize the democratic process in Pakistan.