Analysis: Pakistan's mixed messages on bin Laden sow confusion

LONDON/ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan Thu May 5, 2011 6:54pm EDT

A resident tries to look into the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, May 4, 2011. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

A resident tries to look into the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, May 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

LONDON/ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Faced with the uncomfortable news that Osama bin Laden was killed on their territory, Pakistani officials have tied themselves in knots with contradictory statements that have left most people bewildered.

Did Pakistan provide help which it is denying to avoid a domestic backlash? Or did Washington act entirely alone? Did the Pakistan Army really not know, as it says, that bin Laden was living right next to the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA)?

"Let's have some answers," wrote Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider, calling the government statement on what happened "nonsense, at its most nonsensical."

When news broke on Monday that U.S. forces killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad, some 50 kms (30 miles) from Islamabad, many said the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency must have been involved.

"It was a joint intelligence operation," one Pakistani security official said. "We shared information, intelligence and without our cooperation, this could not be done."

Local residents in Abbottabad were convinced the army -- traditionally one of the most respected institutions in the country -- could not have been caught napping by the Americans.

"It is not possible that Pakistan did not know about the operation," said 60-year-old resident Manzoor Ahmed. "The building is close to the PMA. Was our army sleeping?"

"From the Pakistani and U.S. authorities, there seems to be a well-coordinated effort to create the impression that Pakistan was kept in the dark about the operation," wrote Pakistani columnist Mosharraf Zaidi.

"Just because the "exclusion of Pakistan' fable suits both countries however, doesn't make it necessarily true."

Pakistan, facing a wave of bombings, had long maintained it wanted to get al Qaeda out of the region, paving the way for a settlement with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan to end a war which has increasingly spilled across its borders.

Bin Laden's death helped make that possible, and background briefings by officials added to the impression Pakistan had helped, while maintaining enough "plausible deniability" to avoid the backlash it suffered after troops attacked Islamists holed up in the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad in 2007.

In India, which has harbored suspicions for a decade that Pakistan had al Qaeda leaders in safe-keeping as a bargaining chip to use with Washington -- allegations it denies -- intelligence sources said the Pakistan Army might have helped.

One source said it seemed certain it was a joint operation, "but there is no glory for Pakistan owning it."

In a column in the Washington Post, President Asif Ali Zardari wrote that "Pakistan did its part" in helping to provide the intelligence which led to bin Laden, though he said Pakistan had not been involved in the operation itself.

But in Washington, where President Barack Obama had said that "our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding," U.S. officials said with increasing vehemence that the United States had acted alone.

WATCHING THE COMPOUND

A Pakistan government statement issued on Tuesday confused the picture further. "Abbottabad and the surrounding areas have been under sharp focus of intelligence agencies since 2003."

"As far as the target compound is concerned, ISI had been sharing information with CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009," the foreign ministry statement said.

"Really?" asked columnist Haider. "If that is true then what stopped the ISI from a 'friendly' visit to the compound to find out who might be living there?"

The Pakistan Army has been a target for Pakistani militants since the raid on the Lal Masjid, and would have been unlikely to have taken any risks in a town near its military academy and where many soldiers live.

An intelligence official, talking to Reuters, made no reference to 2009, but noted instead that Pakistani intelligence agents had years earlier trailed a militant courier to a house in Abbottabad which may have been in the same compound where bin Laden was killed.

Zardari mentioned in his column that Pakistan had helped through "our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaeda courier" and the government statement specifically cited 2003.

But former president Pervez Musharraf, in his memoirs "In the Line of Fire," dated the courier's arrest to 2004.

While Islamabad struggled to get its story straight, Washington -- which has had its own problems keeping a clear narrative on the raid -- insisted Pakistan was not involved.

"It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission: They might alert the targets," CIA director Leon Panetta told Time magazine.

On Thursday, the Pakistan Army put out its first public statement on bin Laden. It was somewhat different from the one issued by the civilian government.

And since the military and its intelligence agencies dominate security policy, the government would have had to get its information on what actually happened from the army.

A statement released by the army after its chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, held a meeting with his Corps Commanders on what it called "the Abbottabad incident," said that:

"While admitting own shortcomings in developing intelligence on the presence of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, it was highlighted that the achievements of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), against al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates in Pakistan, have no parallel."

"However, in the case of Osama bin Laden, while the CIA developed intelligence based on initial information provided by ISI, it did not share further development of intelligence on the case with ISI..."

The short statement then asserted that Pakistan's nuclear bombs were not as vulnerable to unexpected hostile action of the kind seen in the unauthorized U.S. raid in Abbottabad.

"...unlike an undefended civilian compound, our strategic assets are well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place."

(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in Singapore and Chris Chris Allbritton in Islamabad; Editing by Michael Roddy)