28 May 2015

Overt impact of covert acts

May 25, 2015

Hersh’s story should be a tutorial for all those in India who reacted with a high degree of exuberance after the Abbottabad raid, that the US would rap very hard Pakistan’s knuckles for giving refuge to the greatest terrorist in the world. 

Immediately after Independence we had a police chief in the old Bombay state who was very fond of sports hunting. Police officers soon learnt that the best way to please him was to arrange a hunt. During one such shoot they managed to locate a tiger in a forest, which was successfully shot by him. However, his detractors spread the story that the tiger was very old and blind and was chased by the local policemen to fall into a dry well where it was ceremoniously shot by the chief.

Seymour Hersh’s sensational 10,000-word investigative report in the London Review of Books on how the US special forces had killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, rhymes with this old Bombay police story: “While Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false”. Hersh claims that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had captured Osama in 2006 from the Hindu Kush. He was kept a prisoner with Saudi Arabian support till 2010, when they decided to use him to bargain with the United States for resuming military aid and for a “freer hand in Afghanistan”.

The alleged US operation started in 2010, when a “walk-in”, who was a former Pakistani intelligence officer, told the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that Osama, who was very ill and “invalid”, was kept as a prisoner by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The US started working on this and confronted Pakistan’s Army leadership. Gradually, an agreement was reached. In January 2011, a secret US operations cell was established in Tarbela Ghazi Airbase for organising the assault. Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI chief General Ahmad Shuja Pasha “were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s Army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission”. The ISI guards posted at the Abbottabad compound were to “leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters”. The power was switched off and the town was dark. Osama who was “cowering” retreated into the bedroom.

A Pakistani intelligence officer escorted the Navy Seals into his bedroom where he was shot. “Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit”. There was no resistance.

Hersh’s story was savagely attacked, not only by the White House, but also by journalists and Al Qaeda “experts” like Peter Bergen who had produced the first TV interview of Osama in 1997. Journalist Max Fisher accused him of basing his story only on two sources, both retired officials, neither of whom had direct knowledge. One was former ISI chief Asad Durrani and the other was anonymous. He alleged that Hersh’s story was “riven with internal contradictions and inconsistencies”. Two more sources were mentioned, both “anonymous consultants” who were claimed to be “insiders”. Fisher concluded that this was in keeping with the recent trend in his reports “being less and less credible”, and added, “In recent years, however, Hersh has appeared increasingly to have gone off the rails.” Fisher revealed that the New Yorker magazine, where Hersh usually wrote, had rejected this story two years ago.

This was in stark contrast with the path-breaking investigative reports that he is famous for — My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath — which won him the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

In contrast, New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, who spent 12 years in Afghanistan and had written a piece on the same subject on March 19, 2014, throwing serious doubts on the official story, has supported Hersh (The Detail in Seymour Hersh’s Bin Laden Story That Rings True, May 12, 2015). Hersh had quoted Gall and Imtiaz Gul of Pakistan’s Centre for Research and Security Studies in the preamble of his report to claim that the Army and ISI leadership must have been in the know of this raid in advance. Gall says that the American and Pakistani versions on the incident had not just radically differed but were also contradictory. Pakistanis had leaked that Osama was not armed while the Seals who took part in the operation had different stories to tell. Gall said that former CIA officer Larry Johnson had “aired the theory of informant — credited to ‘friends who are still active’ — on his blog within days of the raid.

Hersh appears to have succeeded in getting both American and Pakistani sources to corroborate it”. Significantly, Gall concludes her piece by saying that Hersh’s claim that there was “no treasure trove” of evidence retrieved from Osama’s home “rings less true to me. But he has raised the need for more openness from the Obama administration about what was found there”.

As reagrds India, the 2011 Abbottabad raid, was the beginning of our diplomatic fantasy: that we would soon replace Pakistan as the most trusted US ally to “normalise” Afghanistan. We forgot that sugar-coated diplomatic statements often hide ugly truths and covert operations. Hersh daringly reveals how the US pressured Pakistan’s leadership: “The US had begun to cut back on aid to Pakistan… The provision of 18 new F-16 fighter aircraft was delayed, and under-the-table cash payments to the senior leaders were suspended”. How did they agree? “‘It didn’t take long to get the cooperation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership,’ the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal ‘incentives’ that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds.

Thus, Hersh’s story should be a tutorial for all those in India who reacted with a high degree of exuberance after the Abbottabad raid, that the US would rap Pakistan’s knuckles very hard for giving refuge to the most-wanted terrorist in the world.

This is all the more necessary in the wake of subsequent developments in Afghanistan that make it clear that Pakistan was indeed given a “freer hand” to checkmate India. The daring May 14 terrorist attack by a suspected ISI proxy on Kabul’s Park Palace Guest House, which was interpreted to be against Indian targets, killed 14, including four Indians. The new Afghan President has chosen Pakistan for training a group of Army cadets as opposed to India where Afghan soldiers were normally trained. Western media has also reporter that he has “suspended” a request to India to supply weapons. The signing of a controversial agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan envisaging intelligence sharing between the two neighbours — Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) — on May 20, 2015, is yet another such indication.

The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and member of the two-man 26/11 inquiry committee

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