Findings Made By The Abbottabad Commission

The US raid was a total surprise, a ‘betrayal’ and a stab in the back, as the two countries were allies in a War on Terrorism, together had captured a significant number of HVTS, which the ISI handed over to CIA. According to Defense Policy of 2004 and the Joint Strategic Directive (JSD) of 2007, both of which were still operative – the only designated hostile country was India. The two documents specifically directed the armed forces to maintain good relations and avoid confrontation with the US. Pakistan Defense capabilities were designed and developed for a one front conflict situation. Despite tensions, including several border raids and differences on many issues, neither the political leadership, nor the defense policy planners could imagine the US would actually stoop to such a low blow as they inflicted on Pakistan on May 2, 2011. On this assumption, Pakistan air defense capabilities on the western border were deployed in ‘peacetime’ mode.

Moreover, there was tremendous military asymmetry and technology gap between the armed forces of the two countries. This enabled the US to avoid Pakistan air defense capabilities and deterred Pakistan from taking any action that risked escalating the situation beyond control. The US attack helicopters were equipped with stealth technology, night vision, sound suppression, and fast and low flying ‘map of the earth’ flight capabilities. The US intruders were backed by US AWACS and F16 fighters across the border ready to respond to any of the PAF interceptor aircraft.

During the killing, they used silencers. The noise of the Chinooks was heard over Abbotabad valley, acting as an echo chamber, it was not easy to detect the direction from where the sound came. It was only after the loud explosion of the destruction of the downed Black Hawk that the whole town became aware of some in toward development. By then the military mission had completed its work and had departed the scene. By the time the COAS was alerted, the US helicopters were exiting or about to exit Pakistan airspace. The PAF would normally be alerted by radar detection and would scramble in accordance with its standard operating procedures. But on this occasion the radars were unable to pick up anything for the reasons explained. The first time the PAF came to know when the COAS contacted the CAS. By then the opportunity to intercept the American intruders had gone. It was a case of military and technology asymmetry. 

In this regard, there was an assertion that even if a significant US military raid had been anticipated as a possible scenario, there was little that Pakistan could do to avert or counter it given the massive military imbalance between the US and Pakistan.

Findings: This is where the crucial weakness of the security mindset and planning in Pakistan showed up. While military options may indeed have been limited, non-military options including stepping up the search of HVTs, dismantling extremist infrastructure in Pakistan, preventing the use of Pakistan territory for the launching of Mujahideen attacks on occupying NATO forces in Afghanistan, diplomatic mitigations of threat perception, policy reviews to address US concerns without compromising national sovereignty or violating international law it could have been utilized to minimize the likelihood of such an anticipatory scenario. None of this was done. There was no pro-active anticipatory policy or policy planning. There was only a policy to reacting to developments after they had occurred. Under these circumstances, the factor of military asymmetry could not be taken account of and countered or mitigated.

While the political relationship was strained, the situation was not considered threatening enough to warrant an expedited review of the long-standing threat identification of the Defense Policy of 2004 and JSD if 2007. Militarily, the technology gap was decisive. US warnings, including President Obama’s public warnings were amazingly discounted and ignored as being addressed only to US public. One senior military official: as Obama’s remarks were not conveyed in writing to Pakistan, they were not considered to be policy statements. While the military and the intelligence leadership might be forgiven for such a simplistic deduction, the political and diplomatic leadership had no business being so incompetent and irresponsible as to ignore such high level specific and precise warnings.

 Findings: The Commission is of the view that these warnings were almost certainly conveyed to the highest levels, even in private. The Pakistan military and political leadership displayed a degree of incompetence and irresponsibility that was truly breathtaking and indeed culpable.

 The PAF says it responded as soon as it was made aware of the intrusion and attack. Its radar coverage was evaded and by the time the COAS informed the CAS about what happened in Abbotabad, it was already too late to intercept the intruders. The PAF said it gave shoot down orders to the PAF fighter pilots if they encountered aircraft flying over Abbotabad. Nevertheless it was acknowledged that militarily engaging the US was generally not a good option. In fact, it was specifically admitted that the PAF had limited capacity to ensure that another US Special Operation against HVT in Pakistan could be thwarted even with stepped up surveillance and deployment of detection resources in place. All we could do was to respond with unspecific diplomatic and political measures in the event of a repetition of May 2, 2011. Even such measures would be limited by the inevitable need to limit diplomatic escalation with the US as the subsequent Sahala incident clearly demonstrated.

 Finding: There was an overall policy bankruptcy for which the political leadership was ultimately responsible although PAF and military leadership also share responsibility. Submission to a military threat or military aggression from a military superior power without military resistance, whatever the military costs, has existential implication for Pakistan.

 The radars were neither jammed nor switched off, although they were reported in a mode of ‘rest’ since it was not economical to have them permanently switched on the western border, especially when defense deployment was in ‘peace time mode.’ The Commission flew the route supposedly taken by the American helicopters and visited the Air Defense Command centre at Chaklala. There was apparently no compelling evidence to conclude that any non-routine pattern of aircraft movement was picked up by Pakistani radars near the border on the night of the raid. Moreover, none of the helicopters flying in and out of Pakistan were picked up by the radars. There were reports and even the testimony of a very senior PAF Officer that some of the radars did in fact pick up unusual activity across the border that the PAF had not made all defense preparedness on the west which could have made it much more difficult for even so-called stealth helicopters and low flying terrain hugging techniques to completely escape detection by a properly planned and deployed air defense system which should not have been in peace time mode because of the developing threat on the western border. There were F16s and AWACS flying close to the border ready to respond to any PAF reaction. This was picked up by PAF radars but was not seen as a non-routine pattern of US aircraft along the border. In counter-terror air operation inside Afghanistan, no AWACS would be necessary. Maybe this should have been non-routine air activity across the border and communicated as such to Air Defense Command.

 Findings: The Commission was unable to obtain any conclusive evidence to support a finding of non-routine air activity despite the cogency of argument to the contrary. About the criticism of the air defense and planning that was brought to the attention, the Commission finds merit in some of the criticism but not in all of them. Even it was unfair to suggest the PAF was ‘asleep’ on the job; it certainly should have done a better job in providing its inputs for overall defense planning.

 There seemed to be some suspicion among PAF personnel that the PAF had for some reason deliberately took no action against the intruders, possibly in response to communication from the US to the Pakistan leadership. The PAF leadership took measures to belay any such misgivings by providing a technician briefing to PAF personnel who were affected by the bitter media criticism of the Pakistan Defense Forces, especially the PAF in the immediate aftermath of this incident. Moreover, the PAF leadership told the Commission that there was no way to edit out or suppress radar tracings of unusual activity or to act on a directive not to respond to foreign attack without the information being known to PAF personnel who would have reacted very strongly.

There were widespread rumours and many well-connected persons with PAF background, who privately alleged that a communication was indeed received because there was always a possibility of something going worse during the operation (and something actually did go wrong with one of the helicopters). It was accordingly, considered by the US to engage in political damage control in advance. As mentioned, this has been strongly denied by all the senior PAF officers the Commission met. It is possible to understand if not agree with the US decision to militarily implement its Special Operations mission. But it is much more difficult to understand the rationale for it by not sending any communication to Pakistan at any time before, or even during the operation in view of the inherent and irreducible risk of detection by the Pakistan Air Defense system, and the US political imperative to minimize any risks of capture or injury to its Navy SEALs. However, the Commission was not presented any conclusive evidence of any communication from the US warning Pakistan of either imminent or ongoing operation. More importantly, the leaders at the helm of affairs, who were able to provide the most reliable information did not meet with the Commission which would have put questions on this and other unanswered questions directly to them.

The PAF apparently received its first information about the incident at 0207 on May 2. The US helicopters apparently arrived at the OBL compound in Abbotabad between 0030 and 0040. The blast destroying the downed helicopter was at 0105 or 0106. It still took 1 hour for the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) to be informed by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), by which time it was too late. In fact, before the blast, one Chinook and one Black Hawk were circling around Abbotabad valley for around half an hour before they returned to the Compound on the completion of the kill and search mission. Given the 90 minutes between the arrival of the helicopters over Abbotabad and the blast of the destruction of the crippled helicopter, it is surprising that no one brought the matter to the attention of the military Command, especially as it was known that Pakistan helicopters seldom, if ever flew at night. 

·         Why was the Garrison not aware something serious was taking place until it heard the blast?

·         Why the CAS not directly informed about helicopters flying at night over Abbotabad?

·         Why did he have to first learn of the incident from the COAS?

Both the US and Pakistan governments denied any collaboration or prior understanding regarding the raid. Admiral Mullen’s phone call to the COAS at 0500 on May 2 was said to be the very first US communication to Pakistan on the subject. Nevertheless, as indicated there is room for some skepticism on this issue. Minimizing the risk for the US Navy SEALs was an obligation of the US military and of the US President. In fact, the US Attorney General in trying to legally justify the killing of an unarmed OBL, argued that no possible risk to the lives of the Navy SEALs could be entertained. There would have been greater risk to the safety of the SEALs had the armed forces of Pakistan detected their intrusion and tried to intercept it at any stage of their mission in Pakistan, which lasted more than 3 hours. Despite the technology advantage, the risk could not be eliminated unless some prior communication from the US regarding non-interception was received.

 Findings: Nevertheless, there was no conclusive evidence made available to this Commission that would support a finding of prior communication, although there have been unsubstantiated reports to the contrary. If indeed contact was made it is likely to be revealed at some time in the future when there is lesser risk of further destabilizing the bilateral relationship and the government in Islamabad.

 Conclusion: The whole episode of the US assassination mission of May 2, 2011 and the Pakistan’s government’s response before, during and after appears in large part to be a story of complacency, ignorance, negligence, incompetence, irresponsibility and possibly worse at various levels inside and outside the government. Institutions either failed to discharge responsibilities that legally were theirs or they assumed responsibility for tasks that legally were not part of their duties and for which they were not trained. This reflected the course of civil and military relations and the power balance between them. The resulting lapses were sometimes of a serious nature; the fact is that at more senior levels, sufficient evidence was not easily available for acts of culpability to be assigned to specific individuals who wielded critical decision-making powers does not diminish their responsibility for institutional and systemic failures.

The US raid of May 2, 2011 was not a development without background and history. It was a product of increasing tensions and mistrust between the US and Pakistan which were known to the entire country. It related to a subject on which the policy of the US had been stated and reiterated on many occasions. It took place on a context of policy choices made by the military and intelligence establishment without sufficient constitutional and sharing information with their political supporters, the elected government. In turn, the elected government showed no desire to discharge their responsibility to take charge of counter terrorism and the search for OBL. The incident finally occurred within a situation of near absolute military asymmetry in which completely superior capabilities of the US military were well known. It was the result of inadequate threat assessment, narrow scenario and insufficient consideration of available policy options. If institutions and whole systems of government were ‘dysfunctional’ – they were so because of irresponsible governance over a long period, including incorrect priorities and acts of commission and omission by individuals who had de jure or de facto policy making power. Accordingly, responsibility for the state of affairs that existed must rest with them even if many are today beyond judgment. The culpability of low level officers cannot explain any of culpability, lack of due diligence and dereliction of duty at the highest levels.

The May 2 ‘incident’ may not have been the result of any significant failures of immediate military detection and response in the fateful night itself, although there are several credible but unconfirmed reports that allege otherwise. But what is undeniable is that the incident was the outcome over time of a whole series of actions and inactions at very senior decision-making levels. Unless this is acknowledged, discussed in the higher political forums in the country and seriously addressed and redressed as a major national priority, there can be no guarantee against further disasters of the kind that have happened before and after the US assassination mission on Abbotabad on the night of May 2, 2011. The biggest challenge for the future of Pakistan is the refusal to acknowledge unpleasant facts and the tendency to shy away from addressing fundamental flaws in critical decision-making processes that affect the survival, interests of Pakistan.

As the report has shown many individuals and institutions were involved in the series of misdemeanors due to nets of irresponsibility and lack of due diligence in the period leading up to the ‘incident’ of May 2, 2011. The US responsibility is clear. But it is not the primary concern of the Commission. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the failure was primarily an intelligence-security failure that was rooted in political irresponsibility and the military exercise of authority and influence in policy and administrative areas for which it neither had constitutional or legal authority, nor necessary expertise or competence. This is the case even though it is also true that those civilian institutions and powers that had proper constitutional responsibility for policy making, administrative and policing duties were in fact less competent than the military because of the effect of an absence of civilian control and participation in national defense making over a very long period. In the premier intelligence institutions religiosity replaced accountability at the expense of professional competence.

In these circumstances, it would be almost irrelevant and certainly invidious to designate relatively low-level officials with limited powers as the main culprits. They had their responsibilities, while in many cases as pointed out, they failed to discharge professionally and dutifully, and for which they deserve to be reprimanded. But finally, no honest assessment of the situation can escape the conclusion that those individuals who wielded primary authority and influence in national decision-making bear the primary responsibility for creating the national circumstances and environment in which the May 2 incident occurred. It is unnecessary to specifically name them because it is obvious who they are. It may be politically unrealistic to suggest ‘punishment’ for them. But as honourable men they ought to do the honourable thing in duly submitting a formal apology to the nation for their dereliction of duty. It will be for the people of Pakistan in the forthcoming elections to pass collective political judgment on them.

 Excerpts from the Report

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