May 6, 2011 10:13 pm

Bin Laden raid: General distrust

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After the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, Pakistan’s top brass is wary of future close collaboration with the US

Pakistan’s General Ashfaq Kayani is flanked by Adm Mike Mullen (right), and Robert Gates, defence secretary, during his visit to the US state department in October 2010

It was exactly what clandestine military raiders fear most. Labouring in unexpected heat and weighed down by the US Navy Seals and their equipment on board, one of the two Black Hawk helicopters that crossed into Pakistan on Sunday began to lose altitude with alarming rapidity as it approached its destination. The result was a “hard landing” – military-speak for a crash.

When the tail of the craft hit a wall of the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding out, it not only rendered the helicopter inoperable but made so much noise that it alerted local authorities.

The Seals who conducted the operation were experienced: according to a senior US military official who has worked with team members, their average age was about 35 and most had eight deployments under their belt. But their missions are designed to keep them on the ground for as little time as possible – to “minimise time on target”, in the words of one special operations officer – so that enemy forces fail to detect them. Not only would the crash alert others to their presence, it would lengthen the operation as well.

On the ground in Abbottabad, however, it was not enemy forces the Seals had to worry about most, but friendly ones instead. The unit had just violated the airspace of one of America’s most important allies, one whose government had not been informed of their pending arrival. And the Pakistanis were coming.

US military planners had suspected the Seals would get there unmolested, even though it meant crossing from Afghanistan and traversing Pakistan’s sovereign territory for about 200km. “Any country is going to have a hard time monitoring a helicopter operating 50ft off the deck,” says the official who has worked with the team.

But apart from the momentous decision by President Barack Obama to order in the raiding party itself, his choice not to inform Islamabad in advance may prove to be the most consequential of all those made about the attack. Information pieced together by the Financial Times shows a precisely planned but precarious mission that could have gone much more wrong at any point – and one that may permanently fray the already tenuous threads of trust between the two governments.

Pakistani officials confirm they did not pick up the helicopters as they crossed the border, insisting the Americans took advantage of “blind spots in the radar coverage due to hilly terrain”. Just after midnight, according to a Pakistani intelligence official, radar screens at Peshawar airport went haywire, prompting technicians on duty to call for support. “We now believe that was the moment when the US forces froze our radars to give a safe passage,” the official says.

In spite of the blips in Peshawar, Pakistani officials say, it was not until the crash that they had any idea anything was seriously amiss. According to Salman Bashir, foreign secretary, his government began receiving reports of a downed helicopter not far from its prestigious military academy in Abbottabad and asked the Pakistani military to check if one of its fleet had crashed.

Military units in the town were alerted, says the Pakistani intelligence official. The air force scrambled two US-made F-16 fighters, based outside the nearby town of Kamra, which screamed towards the crash site. The chance of a shoot-out between two allied militaries had suddenly become much more real.

Although that was averted, the raid has produced anger and recriminations within Pakistan, straining what many in the US government view as their most important relationship in the effort to hunt down extremists and prevent terrorist attacks on US interests. It also highlights how far the Obama administration’s view of Pakistan and its security services has changed in the two years since it very publicly overhauled policy towards the two nations that US officials now refer to collectively as Afpak.

Most scrutiny of the 2009 review has focused on Mr Obama’s decision to “surge” 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. But a classified memorandum detailing presidential findings – authored by James Jones, national security adviser of the time – dealt far more with the need to change Pakistani attitudes towards extremists based within its borders, according to a senior US official who has the document.

Influenced heavily by the Pentagon leadership – particularly Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who formed a close bond with Gen Ashfaq Kayani, his Pakistani counterpart – the Obama administration decided to stage a charm offensive of sorts in an effort to win over Pakistan.

According to the Jones memo, the success of the new Afpak policy hinged on convincing Pakistani authorities – particularly its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency – they no longer faced a threat from India and that domestically-based al-Qaeda-linked extremists were their most pressing security challenge. The memo went so far as to direct US officials to wage a diplomatic campaign to convince India to set aside its differences with Islamabad and pursue rapprochement – even though, just a year earlier, Mumbai had been attacked by terrorists backed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based extremist group with links to the ISI.

The high point of the US effort came in March 2010 when, ahead of a summit in Washington between US and Pakistani leaders, Islamabad submitted a 56-page wish list – including requests for an India-style civil nuclear deal – that Washington actively considered as a potential quid pro quo for efforts against extremists.

By the end of last year, however, Pakistan’s failure to pursue many of the groups attacking American forces in Afghanistan and plotting against US interests began to change minds. “There has just been a general consensus over really the last nine months that what we were doing wasn’t having the desired effect,” says a US military official involved in Pakistan strategy. “We needed to start putting pressure by showing them we had other options.”

Among those pushing for a shift, several officials said, were the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, and his new boss Gen James Mattis, the war-hardened Marine who now heads Central Command. Both told Adm Mullen that while they believed Gen Kayani was a trusted ally, it was not clear he was having the hoped-for impact on the rest of Pakistan’s security services.

Senior US military officials emphasise that they still have faith in Gen Kayani. Gen Petraeus, for instance, is said to have a “close personal relationship” with the Pakistani army chief, and the two men spent an afternoon together last month before the US commander flew back to Washington for his nomination as CIA director. “We’re disappointed that Kayani hasn’t been more effective than he has been,” says the military official involved in Pakistan policy. “Kayani has miscalculated some of his own adversaries, and some of his own adversaries have ties that run deeper than he thought.”

. . .

American officials familiar with internal debates say there was little opposition to the decision not to inform Pakistan that the Navy Seal team was headed to Abbottabad. The senior military official who has worked with team members says it was a standard operational security decision, like any taken with clandestine raids.

“It’s not just the Pakistanis, it’s anyone,” he adds. “Our own guys, the guys who were doing rehearsals, did not know who they were going after until late in the process.”

Yet public remarks by Leon Panetta, outgoing head of the CIA, and interviews with other US officials, reveal a more complicated political calculus. As attitudes changed in Washington, trust withered to such an extent that the US could not be assured someone within Pakistani security services would not alert bin Laden. “The dilemma for the US government was: we don’t know who we can trust and who we can’t,” says another US military official. “What we do know is that if we were to share anything like this, we could blow the only opportunity we think we’d had in a long time. They chose not to blow that opportunity.”

Just how close Pakistani jets came to intercepting the Seals as they left with bin Laden’s body is unclear. Two Pakistani intelligence officials claim the F-16s arrived in time to make an informed decision not to fire on the helicopters. But other US and Pakistani officials say that by the time the F-16s arrived, the Seals were gone.

Instead, these officials add, the job of informing Pakistani authorities was left to Adm Mullen. At around 8:15pm Washington time, the admiral reached Gen Kayani and for 15 minutes talked him through the operation and the result. Pakistani officials describe Gen Kayani as seething ever since about not having been informed earlier. After a meeting on Thursday of top commanders in Rawalpindi, a military statement said Gen Kayani had “made very clear” to his officers that any future action “violating the sovereignty of Pakistan” would lead to a complete review of military and intelligence co-operation with the US.

But back in Washington, there seems to be little appetite for making promises that it will not happen again. “I think we showed them the other options,” says the military official involved in Pakistan strategy. “You can no longer hold us out. This isn’t simply firing missiles from drones into the hills of Waziristan. The head of the dragon has been lopped off and now we’re going after the snakes in the grass.”

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