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Protecting bin Laden

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Did Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, help Osama bin Laden hide in the years before he was killed in Abbottabad in May 2011? According to an extraordinary piece of reporting in the New York Times Magazine, we finally know the answer: yes. 

Carlotta Gall covered the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade. She had long tried to determine just how much Pakistan’s ISI knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts. For years, there had been rumors and suspicions about the role of the Pakistani government. 

After bin Laden was killed, U.S. officials downplayed those suggestions. “It was as if a decision had been made to contain the damage to the relationship between the two governments. ‘There’s no smoking gun,’ officials in the Obama administration began to say.”

But suspicion remained. Ziauddin Butt, former head of the ISI, once told Gall that he believed former Pakistani prime minister Pervez Musharraf had a role in arranging bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout. But proof had been as elusive as bin Laden himself. 

Then, a breakthrough:

Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. .  .  . (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI—such is how supersecret intelligence units operate—but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.

The U.S. government—over the course of two administrations—has chosen to set aside the evidence of Pakistan’s role in nurturing al Qaeda. Under George W. Bush, the strategy was pressure and hope. Under Barack Obama, it’s unclear there’s any strategy at all. 

Gall’s article, an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, provides a tough reminder of the failure of the United States in Pakistan. It’s also a stern warning about the continuing challenge.

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