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Groping for answers

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

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Local people gather outside the house where bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad.-ANJUM NAVEED/AP

Local people gather outside the house where bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad.-ANJUM NAVEED/AP

FOR a country where it all happened, Pakistan will not even get to put the date on the liquidation of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The entire world, except Pakistan, has accepted the U.S. timeline of May 1. This, however, is the least significant of the discrepancies in the varying narratives put out by Washington and Islamabad on what happened during the couple of hours when the U.S. Navy Seals were airborne in Pakistan and on the ground in Abbottabad.

Leave aside the narratives. Many Pakistanis are unable to figure out how the U.S. helicopters spent more than a couple of hours east of the Durand Line undetected by Pakistan's powerful military, which is provided a big budget by a cash-strapped economy to keep it ever vigilant and fighting fit.

Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani informed Parliament a week after the operation that the military responded to the Abbottabad episode in a manner befitting it. Our military responded to the U.S. forces' covert incursion. The Air Force was ordered to scramble. Ground units arrived at the scene quickly.

It was akin to closing the stable doors after the horse had bolted. According to an official explanation on how the helicopters came in undetected, he said they entered Pakistani airspace using blind spots in the radar coverage owing to the hilly terrain. Also, the U.S. helicopters made efficacious use of latest technology and nap-of-the-earth flying techniques.

In background briefings to a select group of journalists, senior Army officials are reported to have said that this was possible as the U.S. appeared to have used hitherto unused stealth technology helicopters that moved rather silently. But, then, Sohaib Athar a resident of Abbottabad unknowingly tweeted real time: Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 a.m. (is a rare event).

So, even if the U.S. helicopters had evaded Pakistani radars, the question that begs an answer is how come the uniformed men in the garrison town of Abbottabad did not hear the hovering helicopters the numbers vary from two to four and began responding only after television channels reported a crash in the area, which eventually turned out to be the chopper the Navy Seals destroyed as it had developed a snag.

Asked why the response was slower than the usual reaction time to a routine fire incident, Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir said the first information was received when one helicopter went down. By his own admission, Pakistani helicopters do not fly at night. Yet, none of the security agencies thought anything was amiss when helicopters were hovering over Abbottabad for the entire length of the ground operation that is said to have taken a good 40 minutes.

Immediately [after television channels reported a helicopter crash] the relevant departments that include the armed forces, the aviation wing and the Inter-Services Intelligence were alerted to ascertain whether it was a Pakistani helicopter that had met with an accident,'' Bashir said. This, in a town with a considerable military presence, took about 10 minutes.

Once it became clear that it was not our helicopter, then from the GHQ relevant departments issued instructions to the Army and the intelligence units in that area to rush. Simultaneously, the Pakistan Air Force was ordered to scramble the aircraft. Two F-16s were airborne. Now it took about 15 minutes for those units to reach the site. The site is about 4 km by road from the military academy. By that time of course the operation was over and the helicopters had made their way back.

Even if the helicopters had left Abbottabad by the time the armed forces were alerted, the question is how they still managed to leave Pakistani airspace undetected given that the flight to the Durand Line takes at least 40 minutes. And, going by what Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti said, the Army had cordoned off the area by the time the local police reached there. Hoti maintains that the police were alerted by the blast caused by the destruction of the helicopter at 1-15 a.m. That is a good 15 minutes after Athar tweeted that helicopters were hovering over Abbottabad.

The news about Pakistan scrambling its jets was first disclosed by John Brennan, Assistant to the U.S. President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Given the premium that America attaches to the life of each and every national, Pakistanis cannot help but wonder if the U.S. would have taken such a big risk without informing Pakistan in advance probably at the eleventh hour of the surgical strike while keeping the identity of the high-value target under wraps. If that was the case, would bin Laden not have been spirited away if, as the Americans say, he could not have hidden in Abbottabad this long five years as, his Yemeni wife is reported to have told her interrogators without some local support. Or had bin Laden's use by date expired?

Anita Joshua

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 03, 2011.)

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