05.02.11

Why the U.S. Acted Alone

Islamabad’s Al Qaeda allies complicated the hunt for Public Enemy No. 1. Christopher Dickey on how the U.S. went over the heads of bin Laden's Pakistan protectors.

Islamabad’s Al Qaeda allies complicated the hunt for Public Enemy No. 1. Christopher Dickey on how the U.S. went over the heads of bin Laden's Pakistan protectors. Plus, full coverage of bin Laden’s death.

Osama bin Laden’s cave turned out to be a mansion. The desolate mountains where he was hiding proved, in the end, to be the pleasant little hill town of Abbottabad, nearly 80 miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. He’s been holed up, and on Sunday was at last gunned down, in the biggest house around. He lived with relatives and an entourage behind high walls topped with barbed wire, in a community that’s also home to several Pakistani army units. A military academy is just a few hundred yards down the road.

“There aren’t that many six-foot-plus Arabs walking around that town,” says M.J. Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London. “Even if you buy a donkey there it creates a stir. So how could the Pakistani military not know about it?”

We shouldn’t be surprised. Several of the top Al Qaeda bad guys now at Guantánamo were captured deep inside Pakistani territory. And more often than not, they’d been living quite comfortably. “They’re not being caught in some haystack on the border,” Gohel told me back in 2004. Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda’s gatekeeper for new recruits and a planner of terrorist operations, got nailed in Faisalabad in 2002; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of 9/11, was dragged out of bed in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2003; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, since convicted by a U.S. court for his role in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Africa and now serving a life sentence in the United States, was grabbed in Gujrat in 2004. In fact, this is not news to U.S. intelligence officials. The overt and covert war along Pakistan's northwest frontier is important for Afghanistan and American soldiers there. Some mid-level Al Qaeda commanders reportedly have been killed by drone attacks there. But for years, American analysts have suspected that Bin Laden enjoyed the same kind of comforts as his colleagues had had deep in Pakistan's cities thanks to protection from parts of the Pakistani government and its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the infamous ISI. American operatives privately voiced suspicions that Bin Laden’s protectors either sympathized with him or saw him as the ultimate bargaining chip, or both.

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So the covert operation closing in on Bin Laden at Abbottabad gained momentum over the last few months, even as the public friction between Washington and Islamabad grew more intense. In January, when two men allegedly tried to rob CIA operative Raymond Davis, he shot them dead—and got arrested by the Pakistanis for murder. Davis was freed in March after a lot of diplomatic maneuvering and payments to the families of the deceased, who pardoned Davis “in accordance with Pakistani law,” according to the White House. But as that case unraveled, it exposed the presence of hundreds of CIA personnel and contractors operating on Pakistani turf. And they weren’t just helping target Hellfire missiles near the Afghan frontier. Davis ran into trouble when he was gathering intelligence in Lahore on the other side of the country.

American operatives privately voiced suspicions that Bin Laden’s protectors either sympathized with him or saw him as the ultimate bargaining chip, or both.

Last month, when Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen visited Pakistan, he spoke out publicly and with surprising force about America’s problems with the ISI. The specific issue he mentioned was the Pakistani intelligence organization’s “ longstanding relationship” with the so-called Haqqani network, which works alongside the Taliban “supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners” in Afghanistan. “I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Mullen. “So that’s at the core—it’s not the only thing—but that’s at the core that I think is the most difficult part of the relationship.” Not the only thing indeed.

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In President Barack Obama’s carefully phrased description of the “targeted operation” that killed Bin Laden he says cooperation with Pakistan “helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” but it’s apparent “the small team of Americans” who killed him and took away his body were on their own.

Over the long run, the wars that Bin Laden did so much to begin on September 11, 2001, will not end unless some sort of understanding is reached with Pakistan’s government, its military and its intelligence service. “Going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” said Obama. But for its own geopolitical—and purely political—reasons Pakistan is likely to continue being as much part of the problem as part of the solution. At least after the Abbottabad shootout, it’s clear the administration isn’t kidding itself. When it got a shot at Bin Laden, it took it. No dithering. No dilatory diplomacy. Secrecy was maintained. The Pakistanis were cut out. And justice was done.

Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek Magazine and The Daily Beast. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance, and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.