Carlotta Gall: ISI Sheltered Bin Laden in Pakistan

The New York Times has just released an excerpt from Carlotta Gall’s upcoming book “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014″. Recall that Gall lived in Afghanistan and covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Times from 2001-2013 (Declan Walsh also covered Pakistan from inside Pakistan until he was expelled just before the election in 2013). The biggest revelation in the excerpt is that Pakistan knew about, and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, actively sheltered, Osama bin Laden when he was in hiding in Pakistan.

Gall claims that then-ISI head Ahmed Shuja Pasha had direct knowledge of bin Laden’s presence:

Soon after the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s house, a Pakistani official told me that the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. The information came from a senior United States official, and I guessed that the Americans had intercepted a phone call of Pasha’s or one about him in the days after the raid. “He knew of Osama’s whereabouts, yes,” the Pakistani official told me. The official was surprised to learn this and said the Americans were even more so. Pasha had been an energetic opponent of the Taliban and an open and cooperative counterpart for the Americans at the ISI. “Pasha was always their blue-eyed boy,” the official said. But in the weeks and months after the raid, Pasha and the ISI press office strenuously denied that they had any knowledge of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.

Although Pasha knew, it appears that ISI compartmented the knowledge very carefully:

In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge. Only one man, a former ISI chief and retired general, Ziauddin Butt, told me that he thought Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he had no proof and, under pressure, claimed in the Pakistani press that he’d been misunderstood. Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe when I learned this, and I remember gasping, though quietly so as not to draw attention. (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.

Gall’s reporting on Taliban factions and their madrassas came at great personal risk. This story picks up at a point where her Pakistani colleagues have been picked up by the ISI at the hotel where they were staying and she had been summoned to meet the ISI agents outside:

Before I could reach them, the agents broke through the door of my hotel room. The lintel splintered, and they burst in in a rush, snatching my laptop from my hands. There was an English-speaking officer wearing a smart new khaki-colored fleece. The other three, one of whom had the photographer in tow, were the muscle.

They went through my clothes and seized my notebooks and a cellphone. When one of the men grabbed my handbag, I protested. He punched me twice, hard, in the face and temple, and I fell back onto the coffee table, grabbing at the officer’s fleece to break my fall and smashing some cups when I landed. For a moment it was funny. I remember thinking it was just like a hotel-room bust-up in the movies.

Then I flew into a rage, berating them for barging into a woman’s bedroom and using physical violence. The officer told me that I was not permitted to visit the neighborhood of Pashtunabad and that it was forbidden to interview members of the Taliban. As they were leaving, I said the photographer had to stay with me. “He is Pakistani,” the officer said. “We can do with him whatever we want.” I knew they were capable of torture and murder, especially in Quetta, where the security services were a law unto themselves. The story they didn’t want out in the open was the government’s covert support for the militant groups that were propagating terrorism in Afghanistan and beyond.

The excerpt ends with Gall stating her conclusion is an unpopular one (it’s one that certainly doesn’t fit with my stance):

When I remember the beleaguered state of Afghanistan in 2001, I marvel at the changes the American intervention has fostered: the rebuilding, the modernity, the bright graduates in every office. Yet after 13 years, more than a trillion dollars spent, 120,000 foreign troops deployed at the height of the war and tens of thousands of lives lost, Afghanistan’s predicament has not changed: It remains a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists. This is perhaps an unpopular opinion, but to pull out now is, undeniably, to leave with the job only half-done.

Meanwhile, the real enemy remains at large.

What Gall elides is that, in the large part, the enemy she speaks of is only our enemy because we are there. To withdraw, especially if done after a negotiated settlement among the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban, removes their primary reason for fighting us. I wish the people of the region good luck in working toward such a settlement, but the real lesson after thirteen years of war is that we are entrenched in a battle that simply is not ours.

13 replies
  1. shoirca says:

    Carlotta writes

    …”It’s through that agency [the ISI] that Pakistan’s true relationship to militant extremism can be discerned — a fact that the United States was slow to appreciate, and later refused to face directly…”

    The US was not slow to appreciate thes ties, The US was aware of these ties from the get-go:

    “”The request was made by Musharraf to Bush, but Cheney took charge —…Certainly hundreds and perhaps as many as one thousand people escaped. Hundreds of ISI officers, Taliban commanders, and foot soldiers belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Al Qaeda personnel boarded the planes. What was sold as a minor extraction turned into a major air bridge. The frustrated U.S. SOF who watched it from the surrounding high ground dubbed it “Operation Evil Airlift.”

  2. Don Bacon says:

    Well, duh.
    For years the US has been sending people to get killed in Afghanistan while funding the country supporting the people doing the killing.

    General McChrystal noted all this in his 2009 assessment.
    General McChrystal’s Report
    Aug 30, 2009
    ‘Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. . .and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI [Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence ].”

    “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”

    Nevertheless, dumbo did the deed sent even more troops to the killing ground

    Obama, Dec 1, 2009, West Point:
    . . .Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

  3. GKJames says:

    I don’t follow the link between what Ms. Gall sees as “confirmation [of what she] was looking for” and proof that the ISI knew about bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan and knowingly sheltered him there. She says: “According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden.”

    Not unlikely. It’s equally unlikely that the ISI knew nothing of bin Laden’s whereabouts. But how does the ISI’s running a “special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden” translate into confirmation or proof of anything beyond that?

    • Mahrukh Qureshi says:

      Rightly said so… there is indeed no proof of what she has been narrating in her story. Everything starts and ends with ‘might’ and ‘or’ .We expect more from a journalist of her stature!

  4. TarheelDem says:

    Having 170 million people, nuclear weapons, not being part of the non-proliferation treaty sure makes a difference in US policy. It’s a policy that we owe to the wisdom of Henry Kissinger.

    It is also true that “plausible denial” and highly compartmentalized operations permit lower level operators to work at cross purpose and operate outside the view of the head of state. That is a deliberately designed ambiguity because heads of state can split the difference on policy by having operations work at cross purposes so long as they don’t step on each other’s missions. Musharraf as head of state definitely seems to have worked that way. I suspect that subsequent civilian leadership were told what they wanted to hear and conflicting policies were coordinated directly between the military and ISI. I also suspect that there are a few rogue units in ISI. (My suspicion goes to all intelligence services. If it is structurally possible, it is likely to happen.)

  5. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    First, we have credible allegations that members of the Saudi royal family were involved in financing the 9/11 attacks, but nothing has been done to bring them to account. Now, we have credible allegations that Pakistan was sheltering the man principally responsible for 9/11 even as we were providing aid to the country. Meanwhile, President Obama will shortly arrive for an official state visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (and probably won’t even mention this issue to his hosts). All the while, we are threatening to attack Iran, providing arms to jihadi rebels in Syria, and bombing wedding parties in Yemen. Is it a wonder when Patrick Cockburn tells us we are losing the war against Islamic extremists in the Middle East and North Africa? I guess we’re too busy monitoring Islamic girl schools in the United States to notice the bankruptcy of our policies in the region.

      • bmaz says:

        Well, hello there Mr. Chronicle. Not quite obvious, but you seem to have not learned the lesson from the last post where you were insulting other commenters.

        As a recap for you: DON’T DO THAT. I highly suggest you take a look at what I said the last time, since you seem to have not grokked the picture. Here you go.

  6. Garrett says:

    Willem Marx has a good article at Pakistan Newsweek, covering some related issues (the time Carlotta Gall was beaten up by Pakistan security; the dangers to journalists covering Pakistan and Afghanistan; the difficulties of sorting out fact from myth from fiction; not the Bin Laden stuff): Between Fact and Fiction: Rumor and reporting are unavoidably intertwined in Pakistan.

    The previous story, about the killing of Nils Horner, and not knowing where to put the responsibility, is kind of related too.

  7. Ronald says:

    Is there any evidence that Bin Laden was alive after 2001? We recall that none was provided when Navy Seals allegedly killed him. So we’re taking the word of the govt that the Obama WH ordered his murder. And it’s hard to believe that they would lie about something like this.

  8. Dr. G.M. Bhatia says:

    In 1996, three Saudi princes, Saudi intelligence Chief Turki Bin Faisal & Pakistani Air Force officer Mushaf Ali Mir met Osama Bin Laden & secretly financed Al Queda after which US embassy bombings in Kenya & Tanzania were carried out in 1998. However, Clinton only took feeble measure of distant sea-borne cruise missile attack in Afghanistan. Gen. Musharraf after his takeover made Mir as Air Chief Marshall bypassing several officers. Mir’s promotion & Clinton’s poor response encouraged Al Queda to launch 9/11 which then newly installed President Bush had to face.
    Soon after 9/11, three Saudi princess died within days, Turki resigned as intelligence chief & Mir died in a plane crash. The US knew it yet it entered Afghanistan & did nothing to crush Saudi-Pakistani support axis to the terrorists. That Osama was in Pakistan & ISI knew it is not a surprise. The greater surprise is that after huge financial & manpower costs, the US is now departing from Afghanistan leaving this support axis stronger & intact.

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