Amid growing US and Pakistani suspicions, Pakistan's prime minister on Monday dismissed as “absurd” US allegations that the nation's powerful military was “complicit or incompetent” in the case of Osama bin Laden, the al Qaida leader who was killed a week ago by US Navy SEALs in a compound 35 air miles from Pakistan's capital.
Even as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani spoke, however, some US officials were expressing anger that once again the name of the top US spy in Pakistan had been disclosed by Pakistani news organizations in what some say might have been retaliation for the raid.
In his first address to Parliament since bin Laden's death, Gilani said a three-star general would lead an inquiry into the “how, when and why” of bin Laden's years-long stay in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan's most prestigious military academy and the headquarters of two Pakistan army regiments.
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But he left it clear that he did not expect the investigation would find that the military or Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, had conspired to keep bin Laden's presence a secret.
“It is disingenuous for anyone to blame Pakistan or state institutions of Pakistan, including the ISI and the armed forces, for being in cahoots with the al-Qaida,” Gilani said. “It was al-Qaida and its affiliates that carried out hundreds of suicide bombings in nearly every town and city of Pakistan and also targeted political leaders, state institutions, the ISI and the General Headquarters (of the military).”
Whether the results of the probe will be made public wasn't clear, but past inquiries by the military have been kept secret. So far, no officials have been fired over the episode, and few expect senior heads to roll.
Since the May 2 raid on the Abbottabad compound, Pakistani authorities have said little about bin Laden in the face of intense speculation that the armed forces or the ISI must have played a role in keeping him hidden.
In an interview Sunday on CBS's “60 Minutes,” President Barack Obama said bin Laden must have had a “support network” in Pakistan, though US officials have said they have yet to find any evidence tying the Pakistani government to bin Laden.
CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly told lawmakers in Washington during a closed door briefing last week that the Pakistani government either knew of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad or was incompetent because it was unaware of him.
The US didn't inform the ISI or the Pakistan army in advance of the raid out of concern that Islamist elements might tip off bin Laden, angering the country's top generals.
Retaliating for that slight might be one reason the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad was broadcast Friday by ARY, a television channel, and published the following day in The Nation, a right-wing daily, one US official said.
“We suspect it's retaliation,” said the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “That's certainly one of the most plausible explanations for it.”
But a Pentagon official said he was uncertain that the leak was the work of Pakistan's military or intelligence service.
US officials long have charged that ISI and Pakistani army officers secretly have patronized Islamic militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban and other al Qaida-allied organizations fighting US-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan vehemently denies the allegation.
The US official declined to confirm the accuracy of the station chief's name.
It's the second time in five months that the name of the top US intelligence officer in Pakistan has been made public, although this time, the station chief will not be ordered home as occurred on the previous occasion, the US official said.
“There are no plans at this point to pull the CIA station chief out of Islamabad,” said the US official. “This is a seasoned officer who knows very well how to deal with foreign intelligence services.”
The last CIA station chief's name became public in December after relatives of Americans killed in the 2008 assault in Mumbai, India, by a Pakistani extremist group filed a lawsuit in New York naming the ISI director, General Shuja Pasha, as a defendant.
The CIA officer was brought home.
Gilani noted that Pakistan has suffered from al-Qaida attacks since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US He said that more than 5,000 Pakistani soldiers and 30,000 civilians had lost their lives in the “war on terror” and that the ISI had captured 40 top al-Qaida operatives, including the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the man who succeeded him as al-Qaida's operations chief, Abu Faraj al Libi. Both men are currently imprisoned at the US detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Libi told US interrogators that he, too, had lived for a year in Abbottabad in 2003 and 2004, according to secret intelligence files obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy Newspapers.
“Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd,” Gilani said.
“The obvious question that has vexed everyone is how could Osama bin Laden hide in plain sight in the scenic surroundings of Abbottabad. Let's not rush to judgment,” Gilani said. “We will not allow our detractors to succeed in offloading their own shortcomings and errors of omission and commission in a blame game that stigmatizes Pakistan.”
That reference appeared to be aimed at US intelligence analysts' long-stated belief that bin Laden was most likely hiding in Pakistan's wild tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan. The failure to find bin Laden until now in Abbottabad, a resort town filled with Pakistani military personnel, is “not only ours, but of all the intelligence agencies of the world,” Gilani said.
Significantly, Gilani's 24-minute presentation was in English, aimed obviously at an international audience.
Gilani incongruously brought China, the biggest US rival and a longtime Pakistan ally, into his speech, saying it was “a source of inspiration and strengthen for the people of Pakistan.” It appeared to be a sharp reminder to Washington that Pakistan had other partners in the world it could turn to.
According to Pakistani security officials, one of bin Laden's three wives, who were taken into custody after the raid, has said that the terrorist leader lived in Abbottabad for at least five years. Interviews with neighbors indicate that the terrorist leader, his wives and their children never left the compound.
The Obama administration is hopeful that Pakistan will shortly allow US officials to interview bin Laden's wives, said a US official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“The US government expects to get access to the wives very soon,” the official said.
The official was unsure who would conduct the interview, but added that it likely would be a US team that included diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence officials.
The compound was built by two Pakistanis who told neighbors they were brothers, Arshad and Tariq Khan, names officials believe were aliases. Arshad is listed in land records as the owner of the house and is believed by US authorities to have been a trusted bin Laden aide for years. Both brothers were killed in the US raid.
US officials have referred to Arshad as Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, a pseudonym, but have declined to divulge his real name. Residents of Abbottabad have said Arshad spoke to them in Pashto, the language spoken by Pakistani members of the Pashtun ethnic group.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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