The troubling questions about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts didn’t stop with his death last May in Pakistan. On the contrary, they grew louder and angrier following the discovery that the al Qaeda leader had been living with his three wives and several of his children only a mile or so down the road from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. Now the subject has turned hotter than ever, thanks to the revelation of testimony given to Pakistani investigators by his youngest wife, Amal Ahmad Abdul Fateh. The investigators’ report tells an intriguing tale of the family’s travels all across Pakistan in the past ten years. The paraphrased summary, first reported by the English-language daily Dawn, claims not only that bin Laden lived in Pakistan for almost 10 years until his death, but also that Fateh also gave birth to two of his children in government-run hospitals as the family repeatedly moved from safe house to safe house before settling down in Abbottabad.
But did the 30-year-old widow tell the truth? “She is embellishing and, in some cases, outright lying about the circumstances of bin Laden’s life in Pakistan,” Shaukat Qadir told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview. After bin Laden’s death, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani granted Qadir unrivaled access to the al Qaeda leader’s house and to Army officials involved in the official investigation. The retired Pakistan Army brigadier has spent months—and more than $10,000 of his own money—investigating the circumstances whereby bin Laden took up residence in Abbottabad, and he says his findings don’t mesh with the information provided by bin Laden’s youngest widow. “They lived in Haripur, this is true, but those children were not born in any government-run hospital as alleged by her,” he says. Asked to elaborate, he implied that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies may have had a hand in bin Laden’s concealment, but stopped short of saying so. “They [the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate] were doing a lot during those days. A lot. But I cannot discuss that further.”
The leaked document, dated kept Jan. 19 and apparently kept under wraps for more than two months, couldn’t have come at a worse time for Pak-U.S. ties. A day prior to its release, Centcom chief Gen. James Mattis and Gen. John Allen, the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, held top-level talks with Kayani and Gen. Khalid Wynne, the chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff. The four generals discussed cross-border coordination—a sticking point ever since Nov. 26, when NATO forces mistakenly engaged Pakistani forces at two border posts on the Salala ridge, killing as many as two dozen—and other bilateral matters. The discussions appeared to signal a softening of Pakistan’s turn against America –particularly against NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan.
A day earlier U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Seoul and pledged to restore ties that have yet to recover from last May’s U.S. raid on Pakistani soil, which resulted in bin Laden’s death. “I welcome the fact that the Parliament of Pakistan is reviewing, after some extensive study, the nature of this relationship,” Obama told journalists at the event. “I think it’s important to get it right. I think it’s important for us to have candid dialogue, to work through these issues.” Gilani seemed amenable to that hope. “We want stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the prime minister said. “We want to work together with you.”
“Until we know which it was—incompetence or partnership—U.S.-Pakistan relations will be haunted by this question.”
That won’t be as easy as it might sound. Pakistan’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security is working to establish a new framework for relations between Pakistan and the United States. Today the committee’s head, Sen. Raza Rabbani, announced that the committee would present its recommendations to the National Assembly next week. The committee’s report is likely to include a demand that America end all drone attacks inside Pakistan in exchange for reopening NATO’s main Afghan supply route, which was shut down in retaliation for the Salala incident. As unattainable as that deal may be, it’s far more realistic than the committee’s earlier demands, which included a civil-nuclear agreement and an arrangement to shift half of NATO’s supply transport to the beleaguered Pakistan Railways. In any case, analysts predict that the committee’s report—however unhelpful—will have little effect on the Pakistani-U.S. peace process.
But how will Washington deal with suspicions that Pakistani intelligence may have helped bin Laden escape justice for nearly 10 years? The belief that the ISI was complicit in hiding him is hardly new—Qadir’s words have been echoed by Pakistani lawmakers, analysts, former soldiers, and even retired CIA officials. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast, has argued that the ISI was either complicit or clueless about bin Laden’s whereabouts. “His wives knew how to find him and he directed a global terror empire from his hideouts, ordering murder around the world,” he told me via email. “Until we know which it was—incompetence or partnership—U.S.-Pakistan relations will be haunted by this question.”
Or maybe they won’t. “It is very unlikely that the U.S. will pursue this issue,” says Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political and defense analyst who travels between Pakistan and America. “The major concern right now is restoring the NATO supply lines—not worrying about something that is now ancient history.” Besides, he says, there’s no way to verify Fateh’s claims: “For all we know, she could be lying.” With regard to her testimony, he says it would be in Pakistan’s best interest just to close this chapter and move on. In fact, the police summary ends with an order that she and her five children be deported immediately, since they are residing in Pakistan illegally. In order to avoid further embarrassment and repair its U.S. ties, Islamabad could do worse than follow this advice.
With Nazar Ul Islam in Islamabad.