What did Pakistan’s military and intelligence agents know about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and when did they know it?
According to the 9/11 Commission: “It is unlikely that bin Laden could have returned to Afghanistan had Pakistan disapproved. The Pakistani military intelligence service probably had advance knowledge of his coming, and its officers may have facilitated his travel.” During his time away from South Asia, bin Laden had “maintained guesthouses and training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” But he would have needed to broker a deal with the new power inside Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, in order to resettle there.
The ISI made that happen. “Pakistani intelligence officers reportedly introduced bin Laden to Taliban leaders in Kandahar, their main base of power, to aid his reassertion of control over camps near Khowst, out of an apparent hope that he would now expand the camps and make them available for training [Pakistan-backed] Kashmiri militants,” reported the 9/11 Commission.
The value of Pakistan’s assistance to bin Laden at this time cannot be overestimated. After being expelled from Sudan, the 9/11 Commission found, bin Laden “was in his weakest position since his early days in the war against the Soviet Union.” He was desperate for a new ally who would host his network and allow him to rebuild. Mullah Omar’s Taliban, an ISI proxy, gave him just that.
Newly ensconced in Afghanistan, bin Laden rebuilt al Qaeda quickly and within just a few years showed off his group’s deadly capabilities. On August 7, 1998, al Qaeda launched simultaneous suicide truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It was al Qaeda’s most successful operation prior to 9/11, killing hundreds. In the wake of the attacks, President Clinton authorized missile strikes against a suspicious factory in Sudan and bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan.
From a tactical perspective, the strikes mostly failed. A few dozen al Qaeda trainees and operatives were killed, but bin Laden escaped. Several Clinton administration officials and intelligence officers thought they knew why. “Officials in Washington speculated that one or another Pakistani official might have sent a warning to the Taliban or bin Laden.” Adding to their suspicions was the fact that several Pakistani military intelligence officials were among the dead at one of bin Laden’s camps.
In early 1999, Clinton officials were still exploring ways to get bin Laden. The main obstacle, they feared, was Pakistan. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger “suggested sending one U-2 flight” over Afghanistan in an effort to locate bin Laden. The spy plane would have to fly over Pakistani airspace; Clinton’s chief counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, objected on the grounds that Pakistani intelligence “is in bed with” bin Laden and would warn him. “Armed with that knowledge, old wily Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad,” Clarke warned. (Clinton administration officials had received multiple intelligence reports saying that Saddam Hussein wanted bin Laden in Baghdad at the time.)
The 9/11 attacks ushered in a new era of American-Pakistani cooperation against al Qaeda. But the alliance was not a natural one—nor did it come about easily. Pakistan had built Mullah Omar’s Taliban to wage a proxy war in Afghanistan. After al Qaeda executed the most devastating terrorist attack in history, Omar refused to disavow al Qaeda’s leader. Pakistan’s ally in Afghanistan was now one of America’s chief enemies.
The deployment of American-led forces to the region and rapid overthrow of the Taliban undoubtedly influenced Pakistani behavior. In his memoir, former President Pervez Musharraf says that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if Musharraf’s regime did not cooperate. (Armitage denies he made such a threat, but the tough U.S. position vis-à-vis Pakistan is not in question.)
So deep were the ties between Islamabad and the Taliban that Musharraf was initially undecided about abandoning his erstwhile ally. Musharraf claims that he “war-gamed the United States as an adversary” and concluded, in a “dispassionate, military-style analysis,” that the costs of defying Washington outweighed the benefits.
Musharraf’s account may be a self-serving fiction intended to prop up his image as an independent-minded leader who only had Pakistan’s interests at heart. Even so, it is telling that he would express his misgivings about allying with the United States in such a way. “The ultimate question that confronted me was whether it was in our national interest to destroy ourselves for the Taliban,” Musharraf writes. “Were they worth committing suicide over? The answer was a resounding no.”