Unpacking The Abbottabad Commission Report: Part I

The May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a national triumph for the United States. In Pakistan, however, it was a “great humiliation,” the worst since the 1971 war with India ended in dismemberment. The security establishment had no idea bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, not far from the country’s military academy. Nor did the military and intelligence agencies have any inkling the US had carried out a “hostile military mission deep inside Pakistan” until after said mission was over. Following the raid, Pakistan’s Parliament impanelled a commission. Comprised of a Supreme Court Justice, a senior police officer, a diplomat, and a retired general, it interviewed over two hundred people and reviewed thousands of documents. The Commission’s three-hundred-and-thirty-seven-page report was suppressed, but leaked last week.

Those interested only in a definitive answer about how bin Laden lived undetected will be disappointed. To fixate on this question is to miss many other insights that have bearing on U.S. policies toward Pakistan. This is the first of two articles analyzing the report from that perspective. Next week, I’ll tackle the report’s findings regarding the Pakistani military’s failure to prepare for, intercept or respond to the US raid, which the Commission called an “act of war.” Today, I will focus on the endogenous deficiencies the Commission identified that enabled bin Laden to remain undetected. Many of these infirmities also militate against Pakistani efforts to confront the country’s own jihadist insurgency. The geopolitical utility some militants provide Pakistan remains the greatest barrier to dismantling the jihadist infrastructure there, but as I argue in a forthcoming U.S. Institute of Peace report, there are numerous domestic obstacles as well.


Security Is Not Divisible

The house in which bin Laden lived out his final days was disproportionately large and the third floor was built without authorization. There was barbed wire. Bin Laden’s couriers bought the house using fake national identity cards. They never paid taxes on the property. There were four different electricity connections, part of a ruse to mask the number of people living there. The inhabitants burned their trash. Militants fleeing military operations in Pakistan’s frontier areas were known to have moved their families to Abbottabad and to have buried “martyrs” in the area. Abu Faraj al-Libi, a former al-Qaeda number three, was found to have lived in Abbottabad. Umar Patek, an Indonesian member of Jemaah Islamiyah, was arrested in the vicinity of bin Laden’s home shortly before the raid.

Among the questions the Commission seeks to answer is: how did Osama bin Laden manage to live undetected given all the irregularities associated with his Abbottabad domicile and the fact that the area was known have a strong presence of militants, including some high value targets? Without ruling out complicity on the part of rogue members of Pakistan’s intelligence services, the Commission blames widespread incompetence, gross negligence, a culture of corruption and an implosion of governance. All of these, the report stated, are symptoms of a national malaise.

Let’s take just a few of the above data points. The homeowners never paid taxes, but fewer than 10 percent of Pakistanis do. Nor is it unusual for citizens to engage in malfeasance when it comes to electricity. The use of fraudulent national identity cards is hardly uncommon, despite the fact that Pakistan now has a computerized national identity card database.

Leaving aside civilian governance, what about the police and intelligence services? Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has displaced the police and civilian intelligence when it comes to counterterrorism, under which hunting for a high value target like bin Laden falls. The ISI lost interest in this hunt once it stopped receiving intelligence from the U.S. on the issue, a development that occurred circa 2005. The Commission asks why the ISI did not pursue this investigation on its own. No adequate answer was forthcoming. Even if no malfeasance occurred, bin Laden was primarily a U.S. concern and he would hardly be the first militant in Pakistan to benefit from benign neglect.

The ISI’s practice of selectivity with regard to militants –  cracking down on some and supporting others –  has created gray areas for civilian authorities. Fearing professional retaliation from the military and ISI, many civilian authorities choose to do nothing.

At the same time, political leaders have too readily ceded control of this space and shown little initiative to tackle Pakistan’s myriad internal security challenges. Civilian deficiencies and disinterest enable the ISI to rationalize continued ownership of Pakistan’s internal security policies, creating a vicious cycle. This does not excuse, but does help to explain, the failings of the local police, who the Commission criticized for gross negligence. As their report notes, the police and the civilian intelligence agencies are overly politicized, under-funded and lacking in morale.

Similarly, the paucity of intelligence sharing about militant activity in Abbottabad identified by the Commission is not an aberration. Poor coordination among various intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and civilian and military officials is endemic across the entire country. The observation by one interviewee that the presence of militants’ families in Abbottabad had the positive consequence of reducing the likelihood of attacks there is also emblematic of a wider phenomenon. Fear of reprisal attacks in the settled areas like Islamabad and Lahore, as opposed to the Tribal Areas, is one of many barriers to action against militants, both pro- and anti-state. Tolerance of militants who are not perceived as a direct, imminent threat and the belief that “if we don’t hit them then they won’t hit us” have informed Pakistan’s triage approach to counterterrorism for a number of years now.


Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

Although imperfect, the Commission’s investigation is an important step forward in Pakistan’s efforts to develop into a functional democracy. In a country too often prone to conspiracy theories, the report is generally evidence-based. It asks direct questions and, more often than not, tries to answer them clearly. The Commission does not shy away from condemning the military, ISI, police or civilian leaders. One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Pakistani elites is an unwillingness to objectively interrogate past history or recent events and thus an inability to recognize the factors that have contributed to the country’s present security problems. The Commission’s authors identify this tendency and make an effort to rectify it. They pinpoint systemic deficiencies, capacity shortfalls and strategic missteps, and then recommend a number of policy solutions to address these problems.

What does this mean for Washington? In terms of priorities, when tough choices have had to be made, the U.S. focus thus far has been killing al-Qaeda and countering Pakistan-based insurgents fighting in Afghanistan. This makes sense. The United States invaded Afghanistan and re-forged its relationship with Pakistan expressly to destroy the central al-Qaeda organization. Finishing that job is important. However, with the drawdown looming and al-Qaeda Central weakened, Washington must begin reorienting its policies to enable a level of sustainable and focused engagement with Pakistan.

The fundamentals of militant-state interaction are unlikely to change radically in the near term and the United States cannot force strategic steps Pakistan is not yet ready or able to take. As the Abbottabad Commission’s report illustrates, Pakistan faces significant structural and systemic infirmities. The report also makes pointed recommendations for reform. As the 2014 drawdown approaches, the US must begin refocusing its efforts on facilitating the creation in Pakistan of internal conditions for action against militancy that could fructify down the road. Yet Washington must remain humble in its aspirations and aware of the challenges ahead when it comes to making progress against Pakistan-based militants

The bin Laden raid was a major setback to bilateral relations. The tone of the relationship has improved since May 2011, but the two countries have closed the door on a genuine strategic partnership. This is not a bad thing. Policymakers on both sides recognize a sustainable, normalized relationship is the best that they can aspire to build. If they can succeed, this would be a first. However, whereas Washington may find much to like in the Commission’s readiness to criticize Pakistani authorities, the report also condemned the “criminal and pathological” policies of the U.S., termed the raid itself an “act of war” and produced a number of findings that reaffirm that the bilateral relationship is likely to remain on rocky terrain for the foreseeable future. I’ll address some of those issues and areas of concern next week.


Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.