Abbottabad Investigation: Don’t Hold your Breath


May 15, 2011: Pakistan-watchers like ourselves were hardly surprised last week when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the Pakistan parliament that the government’s investigation of the May 1 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad would be conducted by a military commission headed by a three-star army general, not, as some had hoped, by a more broadly based body that would include civilians. The Pakistan military has always been zealous in securing its own professional interests. It does not countenance interference by civilian officials in a matter of such importance to its authority and prestige. And despite the embarrassment and worse of Abbottabad and what seemed at least briefly the possibility of a challenge from the civilian leadership it will almost certainly carry the day on this issue.

Parliament has now passed a resolution calling on the government to appoint an independent commission on the Abbottabad operation. Its mandate is to fix responsibility and recommend necessary measures to ensure that such an incident does not recur. Such a commission, however, is unlikely to receive the kind of cooperation from the military that would permit it to reveal inside information.

If an investigation in fact takes place, its conclusions will almost certainly be tightly held. That’s the way things are done in Pakistan. The most notorious evidence of this protective approach to military failure was the fate of the report compiled by Justice Hamidoor Rehman on the historic 1971 defeat of the Pakistan Army by Indian forces in the war that led to the breakup of united Pakistan and the establishment of independent Bangladesh. Never published, the report only came to light when it was discovered almost thirty years later by an Indian journalist.

Nor will the heads of senior military or intelligence officers roll. Pakistan does not have a tradition of public acceptance of responsibility, and the army has not engaged in the kind of “lessons-learned” exercises familiar elsewhere. What usually follows a military setback is official silence punctuated by self-exculpatory statements and creative finger-pointing by those involved.

So don’t hold your breath waiting to learn from official Pakistani sources what really happened. And don’t be impressed by ISI Chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s reported offer in Parliament to resign over the intelligence failures connected with the Abbottabad operation. Given Pakistan’s military culture, it would be very surprising if such an offer were honestly made, let alone that it would be accepted.

Howard B. Schaffer

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