“Trust, but verify” and Pakistan: III

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — third of three parts ]


David Ronfeldt said something in a recent comment here on strategy that to my mind maps very nicely — like one of those zooms in films from a very long view of a New York cityscape right in through the window of a brownstone onto a particular book on a certain someone’s bedside table or desk – onto this week’s questions about Pakistan:

as others have noted better than i, strategic relationships may involve competition in one area, collaboration in another, and a potential for serious conflict in yet another.


That seems to be pretty much the attitude of the ISI retiree Michael Wahid Hanna described on the Afpak channel two days ago:

“As for duplicity, I would say that diplomacy is not single tracked. We all follow many different tracks; sometimes, apparently, working against each other,” a retired senior official from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told me and my colleagues during a private gathering in Islamabad in July 2010 that was organized as part of The Century Foundation’s International Task Force on Afghanistan. “Double games or triple games are part of the big game.”


Time magazine gives the argument from both the “they must have known” and “honest, we didn’t” sides:

The most damaging accusation against the Pakistani military, of course, is that it must have known bin Laden’s was hiding in the small garrison town where army personnel at frequent checkpoints demand identification. “They knew. They knew he was there,” wrote Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida, echoing the suspicion of many Pakistanis. Kayani had driven past bin-Laden’s bolt-hole literally a week earlier, on his way to tell a gathering at the military academy that the “Pakistan army is fully aware of internal and external threats.”
Kayani was adamant that the Pakistanis had no idea that bin-Laden was hiding in Abottabad. “We had no clear, actionable information on Osama bin-Laden,” he told the journalists. “If we had it, we would have acted ourselves. No one would have questioned our performance for ten years. It would have raised our international prestige.”

That’s fair and balanced with, if you’ll excuse the pun, a great deal hanging in the balance…


Pat Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis, accordingly, tries to weight the the US and Pakistan in terms of their respective affordances to each other…

Let’s see… What does Pakistan do for the US? … Pakistan’s military keeps it’s existing and future nuclear capability out of the larger world game. As has been discussed at SST many times, Pakistan either has or will soon have the real world CAPABILITY of ranging Israel’s target set. They have around 100 fully engineered and manufactured deliverable nuclear weapons. They have aircraft and missiles (Shahiin 2 improved) that would do the job. The missile launchers are fully mobile. The US has zero control over this nuclear strike force. Logically, the willingness of the Pakistan military to keep this “piece” off the chess board is a major boon to the US. We do not want to see that willingness change to something else.
On the other hand … The Pakistani security services support many of our worst opponents in Afghanistan. This is so well documented that I won’t bother to do so again.


Are you dizzy yet?

Lawrence Wright at the New Yorker – he wrote The Looming Tower, simply *the* book about AQ’s road to 9-11 – drops one of those tidbits that just might be the exact detail we need to pursue, in one of those long shot zooms in through the window I was talking about. He tells us:

Within the I.S.I., there is a secret organization known as the S Wing, which is largely composed of supposedly retired military and I.S.I. officers. “It doesn’t exist on paper,” a source close to the I.S.I. told me. The S Wing handles relations with radical elements. “If something happens, then they have deniability,” the source explained. If any group within the Pakistani military helped hide bin Laden, it was likely S Wing.


Are we getting closer to that starkly phrased remark of Zen’s that I quoted at the outset of this three post series, “Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in an ISI safe house in Abbottabad” ?

I trust Lawrence Wright quite a bit — but I would like to verify

11 thoughts on ““Trust, but verify” and Pakistan: III”

  1. read Michael Ledeen: http://pajamasmedia.com/michaelledeen/2011/05/04/what-if-the-killing-of-bin-laden-is-the-beginning-of-the-great-american-retreat/

    1. I have never believed that AQ was an independent organization. I think the best guess is that when it was exiled from Somalia to Afghanistan, it was adopted by Iraqi intelligence in cooperation with ISI, which was and is running the Taliban.

    2. At some point a few years ago, ISI was left with the whole ball of wax. It was probably they who decided to rat out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal Palestinian who was running the Iraq operation. By that time it was clear that a Sunni government was not going to be established in Iraq, and ISI did not want to run the risk of provoking the Iranians.

    3. I credit the report that OBL was living in Abbottobad for several years. It makes perfect sense, with ISI running things, OBL was a 5th wheel, and, he was “retired” and told to work on his memoirs. OBL was not running AQ with out coms or an office that had them. Besides, if OBL were important they would have at least provided him with bodyguards.

    5. Did ISI rat OBL out? Most likely, What better way to get the US out of the neighborhood. Now, Obama can now declare the war won and exit. And they got the $50 million. And OBL is a martyr who can be summoned up to motivate the rabble when necessary.

    6. BO probably bargained for three steps to the door. I.E. the US winds down the Afghanistan operation, and Pakistan keeps the Taliban on a leash and the Karzai government in place until after November 2012.

    7. I despise and disrespect BO and don’t agree with him on anything, but that would not be a bad deal. Clearly, the war in Afghanistan is a war against Pakistan, and it cannot be won, or even properly fought without an all out attack on Pakistan. We cannot do that right now because our soldiers are behind enemy lines — literally. Get our soldiers out of Afghanistan, and we can deal with the Pakistanis from our bomber base on Diego Garcia.

  2. This is actually the second major Pakistani intelligence blunder, if such things are to be believed. Remember when the head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, A. Q. Khan, was found to be proliferating nuclear technology to every enemy of western civilization imaginable (most notable North Korea)? All without the knowledge of Pakistan’s government of course. And then we have the latest craziness where a giant compound which screams “hide out / safe house” to anyone who looked at the plans or the structure was built right in the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment without anyone apparently being curious about such a structure or who was in it.

    Occam’s razor would tend to indicate that these astounding lapses are actually mere cover stories for the simple fact that elements of Pakistan’s government has been covertly sponsoring international terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation to the enemies of the west.

  3. “Within the I.S.I., there is a secret organization known as the S Wing, which is largely composed of supposedly retired military and I.S.I. officers.”

    “If something happens, then they have deniability,” the source explained.

    “If any group within the Pakistani military helped hide bin Laden, it was likely S Wing.”

    I read the Abottabad was a retiree haven for old soldiers… The same ones that are called into action within the ISI “S Wing” to have that deniability after they do something radical and totally beyond the purview of ISI or the official Palkistani government. They just set OBL up in a retirement village…

  4. I have not seen much wrt to a AQ/ISI/Mumbai relationship other than Pakistan clearly warning India not to attempt a similar raid. Even a suspicion that the Pakistan Government is sponsoring AQ activities (based on a belief that it protected UBL and may be protecting other AQ members) gives rise to some dangerous possibilities. If it is true that the ISI was assisting or complicit in providing cover for UBL, then it is worth considering that excluding Pakistan from the operation not may have prevented the tip off of UBL, but also prevented the sanitizing of the site. If there was evidence of connections discovered based on material collected at the UBL compound, then there may be all sorts of opportunities as a result.

    However, it may also be that the Pakistani government and its various components is, like all governments everywhere, far less effective at its job than it would have everyone else believe (and believes itself?). Given our own record with understanding, locating and taking action against the threats on our soil before they do something which forces an overreaction, it is certainly plausible that Pakistan just got missed the whole thing. The irony of course is it may not matter – both are somewhat damning, and both cost may cost them; the question for their strategists now is how to take this and turn it into some opportunities that all involved can buy into?

  5. Rob,

    The Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is that there is no sovereign Pakistani government/state as we understand the term in the West (See: Clausewitz’s People/State/Army & Nation-state writings).

    “The Government” is a Potemkin village facade that the various Pakistani power factions put in front for gullible foreigners to be swindled at.

    Pakistani power politics is all a matter of internal stimuli.

    Every Pakistani faction is out for its own narrow power interests and to hell with “the nation.” There is no one in Pakistan capable of turning off Islamist terrorism, so there is no one we can “engage” or “intimidate.” Thus there will always be another Pakistani faction/clique/family group supporting another group of Islamist terrorists for their own narrow goals.

    And supporting any large Islamist terrorist group means support of terrorist groups attacking America. We are the “Great Satan” no matter who is the local “Lesser Satan” (See: India & Israel).

    All we can do is take away their means of attacking us. This means killing them, a lot of them, until it stops.

    The American people won’t go there — and thus the American government won’t follow orders — until the Presidential election after we are very badly hit at home, again, from Pakistan.

  6. So maybe this place is really The Village, complete with the penny farthing bicycle (“old fashioned big wheel”) emblem, every resident having a number, the two dudes on the all-seeing teeter-totter gizmo, the weather-balloon thingy for rounding up escapees, and Patrick McGooin in the role as Bin Laden.

    So maybe Bin Laden was indeed The Prisonor of the ISI, not really in prison or being tortured or subject to harsh conditions, but essentially being put on ice and kept out of the public eye on account of him being an embarrassment to the Service.

    And then after spending however many episodes, this version of the show ends up with Black Helicopters and men with guns fast roping into The Village.

  7. Paul,

    American intelligence ran down OBL because he was communicating by courier with the rest of his Al-Qaeda terrorist network on operational matter.

    They tracked that trusted courier into Abbottobad.

    An American intelligence team watched OBL’s compound for five months, likely listening remotely to the key strokes of his computer with hand implanted listening devices and watching with every passive sensor we could smuggle in.

    American intelligence also had Pakistani military and government electronic communications into and out of Abbottobad bugged to the fair the well as a part of setting up the strike.

    American intelligence templated who was really important in Pakistani decision making, who passed on the information to them and how long their chain of command took running important information from decision makers to security folks to act on. Then how that information made its way back before the Pakistanis realized it was likely what we had done.

  8. So the term the Indians use is “plausible deniability.”

    I blogged the following from Pakistani journalist A.K. Chishti before:

    Ali K. Chishti: ISI is widely misunderstood. It’s not rogue.

    In fact, it’s a fit unit who has learned the art of maneuvering. It’s obviously run by its separate directorates but acts on the policy guidelines of the Pakistan Military Chief. If you need to understand the working of ISI, I will give you one example — a section of the ISI is deputed to protect Mullah Omar and another is working with the US to catch him.

    That is ISI for you.


    Take the above, add it to the “S” wing, and you have plausible deniability. That’s how its done. The state is set up to grow asymmetric actors. A certain part of the security apparatus in the West has basically said – for years and this shows up in military journals – “well, you know, you have to understand that they do this because they are smaller than India and need them for their security.”

    And then sometimes understanding slipped into outright apologia, IMO. I’ll blog this later sometime.

    This is the conceptual error I was talking about at zenpundit. The Pakistani people have suffered the most from plausible deniability because these groups have killed more of them than anyone else.

    There are better ways to protect your nation from a larger next door neighbor.

    Charles: in my comments at zenpundit, I was being my usual drama queen self. (“Shame on this,” and, “shame on that:). I wasn’t really accusing any one person of anything in particular. I hope my comments didn’t come across as accusatory toward you. Your posts intriguing and thought-provoking. I always love to read what you write. I learn so much.

    But my drama-queen side always gets the better of me. I need to learn restraint in such discussions. I am still learning….

    This is a new area for me and I have all the enthusiasm of an enthusiast at the beginning of her intellectual journey.


    – Madhu

  9. Trent Telenko:

    The Service I was speaking of was ISI not CIA.

    I am thinking Pablo Escobar, who had some kind of silken-handcuff house arrest arrangement in Colombia. In other words, the Pakistani’s didn’t exactly have Mr. Bin Laden in a dungeon, but they weren’t exactly treating him as an honored guest either. And like Mr. Escobar, Mr. Bin Laden got the silken-handcuff treatement because of who he was and what he was able to do. As to the courier, wasn’t Escobar running his drug ring out of whatever house-arrest thingy he was subject to? And also like Mr. Escobar, that house arrest arrangement didn’t work out in the end.

  10. Madhu:

    I hope my comments didn’t come across as accusatory toward you. Your posts intriguing and thought-provoking. I always love to read what you write.

    Thanks, and no, I didn’t read your comments as accusatory in any way — and I’m always delighted when I see a Madhu comment!

  11. Paul,

    Not a chance, Osama was running his organization from Abbotabad as one of the ISI’s terrorist operations departments.

    See below:


    Taliban, Arab followers freely visited Osama in Pak hideout
    By ANI | ANI – Sun, May 15, 2011

    Washington, May 15 (ANI): Taliban leaders and wealthy Arab supporters often visited Osama bin Laden without endangering their safety in Abbottabad, Pakistan, documents and computer files seized from his compound revealed.

    The Telegraph quoted an Afghan Taliban commander as saying that bin laden had direct contact with his followers.

    Western intelligence chiefs had earlier thought that bin Laden’s contact with the outside world was conducted via messages on memory sticks, but recent revelations depict a different story altogether.

    The commander also said when he last saw the terror leader in Abbottabad two years ago, he seemed healthy and well briefed on recent developments, but concerned about his safety and money. He also said bin Laden had admitted that he had to continue meeting top aides because so many senior lieutenants had been captured or killed.

    “He said he had no choice but to be active and meet people, despite the security risks. He was meeting with other top al-Qaeda leaders who could get access to Abbottabad without endangering their safety,” the Taliban leader said.

    The report is poised to focus attention yet again on how bin Laden managed to live apparently undetected by the Pakistani authorities for several years in a garrison town, less than a mile from the country’s top military academy. (ANI)

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