05.06.11

Pakistan’s bin Laden Scapegoat

Pakistani officials tell The Daily Beast that the head of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service may step down, as the government looks for a fall guy for the bin Laden debacle.

Plus, full coverage of bin Laden.

To allay both domestic and international anger and dismay over the presence of Osama bin Laden in a military cantonment town close to the capital, senior Pakistani officials have told The Daily Beast they recognize that an important head has to roll and soon. They say the most likely candidate to be the fall guy is Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the director general of the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. In a last ditch effort to control the damage and to assure the US that the ISI was not harboring him and was unaware of his presence in Pakistan, Pasha reportedly flew to Washington today. But these high-level sources who refused to be quoted or named say his resignation is only a matter of time.

Savvy Pakistani analysts who have close connections to the military agree. “It would make a lot of sense,” says retired Pakistani Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. “It’s in his (Pasha’s) personal and the national interest to take the heat off.”

The heat has been fierce. Whether they supported or loathed bin Laden, Pakistanis across the board are furious that the ISI and the powerful military, which control national security policy, could have been so incompetent not to know that the al Qaeda leader was comfortably holed up in Abbottabad, only 80 miles north of the capital. “Never before have the military and the ISI come under such criticism,” Masood says. People are also angry, if not embarrassed, that the military, which eats the lion’s share of the national budget and is seen as the country’s protector from invading forces, particularly neighboring India, could be totally unaware that American helicopters had violated Pakistani airspace. The U.S. choppers had hovered over the town during the 40 minute-long operation in the town, and then returned to Afghanistan without a response. “People are outraged,” says Masood. “They see this as the fault of the military in which they have invested so much trust.”

A senior ISI officer told The Daily Beast he couldn't confirm the report, saying he has no knowledge of Pasha being pressured into resigning. “It's far from routine for someone to resign over failures,” he said. “But someone has to resign.” A former ISI officer was more blunt. “It was a great failure of, and an embarrassment to, Pakistani intelligence,” he said. “The pressure is mounting for Pasha to resign.” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, spokesman for the Pakistani armed forces, said reports of Pasha's resignation are "baseless, without one iota of truth."

Pasha’s resignation could be the first step in a process of rebuilding that badly damaged confidence, Masood and the senior Pakistani officials say. “It could ease a lot of pressure,” Masood says. It would also help rehabilitate the army’s and the ISI’s badly tarnished image. Under Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. who assumed the military’s top position in late 2008 from the autocratic Pervez Musharraf, the army has made a public-relations comeback. Under Musharraf, the military was seen as meddlesome and oppressive force. Kayani pulled it back from direct involvement in government and politics. Pakistanis were also impressed by the humanitarian work the military carried out last year in rescuing victims of the devastating floods. Now those good works have largely been forgotten as a result of the bin Laden fiasco.

“People are outraged,” says retired Pakistani Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. “They see this as the fault of the military in which they have invested so much trust.”

Personally, Pasha could go out with honor and also dispel the notion that he was personally incompetent if he does step down soon as is widely expected. “It would help Pasha as an individual because in Pakistan, no one resigns to accept blame for anything,” says Masood. “It would be a first.”

Apparently, he would not be leaving a job he loves. The senior Pakistani sources say that Pasha was never keen on the ISI job in the first place. He had no background in intelligence and was an infantry and armor officer in previous commands. He was, however, very close to Kayani, who insisted he take the job when he was nominated in 2008. “No one would have been as trustworthy to Kayani,” says Masood. “Kayani thought it was very useful to have him there.” Pasha had served under Kayani’s command as an infantry officer and had served as head of military operations just as Kayani had. Kayani also headed the ISI from 2004 to 2007 until Musharraf appointed him army chief. Kayani, the sources say, wanted to maintain a high degree of control over his powerful, former bailiwick and thought his friend Pasha would allow him to do so.

Even some family members are said to be urging him to step down. His two daughters had opposed him taking the ISI job and now they are pressing him to retire and take an honorable exit from the military. Even so, he is reluctant. He feels his resignation would widely be seen as an admission of responsibility, if not guilt, the sources say. The senior Pakistani officials who know Pasha and have spoken to him since the raid say they are convinced that the ISI chief did not know of bin Laden’s whereabouts. That may be true, but he may have no choice but to fall on his sword. It’s likely that Pakistani generals will decide that someone will have to become the scapegoat in an effort to limit the damage to the armed forces---and that Pasha will most likely be the man.

But Pasha’s resignation will not affect the US investigation of how bin Laden was able to hide right under the noses of the Pakistani military for so long. Clearly Washington suspects there must have been some official collusion at the highest level of the Pakistani security forces. The trove of documents, hard drives and memory sticks that the Navy SEALS removed from bin Laden’s residence during the raid could provide some clues to American investigators.

According to a U.S. official, Washington is now reassessing its view of Kayani. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was his main American interlocutor and became something of his pal during the long hours they spent together. Mullen is said to believe that Kayani could eventually be brought around to the American viewpoint that the Pakistani military has to move forcefully and rapidly against Taliban and al Qaeda havens in North Waziristan and around Quetta. But this same source says that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, sees Kayani in a less favorable light. Indeed, many senior U.S. officials see Kayani as being too wedded to the traditional Pakistani line as laid down by the late dictator Ziaul Haq: that India is a clear existential threat to Pakistan and that Islamabad must do all it can to ensure its influence in Afghanistan and to limit New Delhi’s growing presence there. And that means turning a blind eye to the Taliban.

Gen. Masood doesn’t believe senior Pakistani officers were colluding with bin Laden and al Qaeda. “It was sheer incompetence,” he says of Pakistan’s failure to find him. Rather he believes that local civilian and security officials in Abbottabad could have protecting him. “There could have been some connivance in the civil administration, the police and the drug mafia that are powerful there,” he says. “There had to be some kind of umbrella.” “Otherwise it was not possible to bin Laden to hide,” Masood adds. “People are very nosy. They would have asked who is living there.” If they did, no Pakistani official seemed to listen.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.