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Interview: Why Is Pakistan Arresting Those Who Helped Find Osama Bin Laden?

A man walks past a wall with "Osama Bin Town" spray-painted on it in Abbottabad on May 6, days after the U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
A man walks past a wall with "Osama Bin Town" spray-painted on it in Abbottabad on May 6, days after the U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan's military has reportedly arrested five Pakistani informants who helped give information to the CIA about activities at Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan ahead of the raid that led to his death in May.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke about the implications of the arrests with Sebastian Gorka, a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington who advises the United States and its NATO allies, as well as the British military and the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

RFE/RL: What does it say to you about Pakistan's military when you hear that instead of hunting down the people who helped bin Laden hide in their country, it is instead hunting down the people who helped the United States find and kill Osama bin Laden?

Gorka: I think this is a wonderful example of why one cannot talk of Pakistan as a unitary nation. After bin Laden was killed, the immediate comment one heard in the American media and internationally was, "Clearly Pakistan must have known. Or if Pakistan didn't know, they were incompetent." This is a misunderstanding of the reality that is today's Pakistan. There is no one political elite in Pakistan.

You can quite easily imagine, for example, that the political leadership -- the civilian leadership in Islamabad -- had no idea that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad. But at the same time, you could imagine, for example, that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] or that members of the military were well aware of it because, let's be honest, he was within a block and a half of the equivalent of the [U.S. Military Academy at] West Point for Pakistan. So here, what we are seeing is perhaps one of these actors, one of these sub actors inside Pakistan, trying to divert attention consciously. Perhaps one of those groups that knows they may be in trouble if the civilian leadership investigates bin Laden's being in Pakistan needs to take a rearguard action and instead of hunting down those people who facilitated his stay in Abbottabad, they are trying to push and divert attention away from themselves.

RFE/RL: In interviews that RFE/RL has done with U.S. lawmakers who sit on congressional intelligence and foreign affairs committees, one of the suggestions we hear is "Somebody in Pakistan knew" bin Laden was hiding close to a prominent Pakistani military academy -- not necessarily someone in the civilian government, but perhaps someone in Pakistan's military or intelligence communities. You've just described a possible diversionary tactic by elements with the military. What does that say about the relationship between the United States and Pakistan's military and intelligence communities who are supposed to be allies in the war against terrorism?

Gorka: The military has to be understood to be a world unto itself in Pakistan. If you walk onto a military base, if you see how people are housed, if you see the quality of living, the quality of just basic food supplies amongst the military families, you understand that there is a real Catch 22 situation. On the one hand, the Pakistan military is driven -- is truly driven -- by the concept of having to fight another war against India. At the same time, they understand that they are receiving huge amounts of financial and military support from the United States, which guarantees very much not just their national security capacity but also the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Secondly, there is this very influential substratum of doctrinal thought that because war with India drives the strategic culture of the Pakistani military, Afghanistan is seen as a rearguard territory where the forces of Pakistan can retreat to should there be a war with India.
I have been in debate with senior Pakistani generals who said there is absolutely no problem with creating, maintaining, and utilizing proxy insurgent forces on your own territory.

On top of that, because India is so much larger, so much more capable and has more nuclear weapons, Pakistan has a very interesting -- to say the least -- attitude toward the use of proxy forces. I have been in debate on Pakistani television with senior Pakistani generals, retired generals, who said there is absolutely no problem with creating, maintaining, and utilizing proxy insurgent forces on your own territory. This is a very strange attitude to how war should be waged. Could you imagine any NATO nation -- France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the United States -- maintaining irregular, nongovernment insurgent forces on their own territory just in case they had to go to war with a neighbor? This is not how we understand military strategy. And I think this one of, perhaps, the reasons that influenced the decision for some people to provide succor and harbor to bin Laden on the soil of Pakistan.

RFE/RL: One of the interesting details reported about the arrest of the Pakistani's who helped the United States ahead of the raid against Osama bin Laden is now being denied by the public relations department of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service. It is the report that a Pakistani army major was among the five informants arrested, and that he had been observing and taking license plate numbers of cars going inside Osama bin Laden's compound. U.S. lawmakers have told RFE/RL the U.S. intelligence sources -- not U.S. agents, but their sources -- were in a position to identify exactly who within Pakistan's military and intelligence community may have helped Osama bin Laden stay hidden in Pakistan for so long. With that in mind, doesn't the arrest of the Pakistan informants suggest that high-ranking officials in Pakistan's military are now involved in a cover-up?

Gorka: Possibly. One always has to be very, very cautious with initial media reports. But we seem to have confirmed by various sources in the open source unclassified domain that the U.S. intelligence community had assets on the ground for a matter of months surveilling bin Laden's house. So perhaps there wasn't even a need for local sources to do surveillance. Perhaps there was. But again, we enter this "Twilight Zone" -- this "Alice In Wonderland" reality of Pakistan-U.S. relations. The fact is that on numerous operations in the last nine years, Pakistan has provided intelligence to the United States and the United States has provided intelligence to Pakistan, when it is deemed to be of mutual interest. So perhaps, in this case, we just have a poor soul who has been in the wrong place at the wrong time and who has been identified as a potential scapegoat. But let's wait and see what happens and who they arraign in a hearing -- if there is ever an open hearing in Pakistan after these arrests.

RFE/RL: And we should remember that it is Pakistan's military that has arrested these informants, not Pakistan's government?

Gorka: Yes, I think this is an important point.

RFE/RL: It also is being reported that another one of the five arrested was the man who owned the property next to Osama bin Laden's compound which was used by the CIA as a safe house.

Gorka: Well, if that's true, that is very unfortunate. If that is the case, then this is clearly a message that Pakistan is sending to America: "Yes, you got bin Laden, but we have ways to get back at you." So if that turns out to be true, that is not a good sign.

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