Thursday, May 12, 2011

Islamabad hits back at US over raid

ISLAMABAD: A rift that has been widening between the United States (US) and Pakistan in the wake of the raid which killed Osama bin Laden broke into the open yesterday, with Islamabad calling for a reduction of American troops in the country to a 'bare minimum'.

Pakistan also warned against any further raids, saying 'disastrous consequences' would result, and that it would review cooperation with the US. The warnings came as criticism of the Pakistani military, the most powerful and privileged force in the country, mounted yesterday.

Members of Parliament, newspaper editorials and Pakistan's raucous political talk shows berated the military and intelligence establishment, institutions previously immune to reproach, for failing to detect the US raid.

Shaken by the criticism, the Pakistani army yesterday used its first statement since the raid on Monday to acknowledge 'shortcomings' in its efforts to locate Osama, and promised to conduct an investigation. It said that it had scrambled F16 jets as soon as it became aware of an airspace intrusion, although this came too late to intercept the US helicopters.

But there appears little doubt that the raid has provoked a crisis of confidence in what was long seen as the one institution holding together a nation dangerously beset by militancy and chronically weak civilian governments.

Yesterday's developments came as more scathing assessments were made of Pakistan's trustworthiness in Washington and elsewhere. Pakistan, however, flatly denied colluding with Al-Qaeda after the CIA said it had refused to tell Islamabad about the raid, fearing the terror kingpin might be tipped off.

'It's easy to say that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or elements within the government were in cahoots with Al-Qaeda,' the top civil servant at the Foreign Ministry, Mr Salman Bashir, yesterday told the first news conference by a senior Pakistani official since Osama was killed.

But he added: 'This is a false hypothesis. This is a false charge. It cannot be validated on any account and it flies in the face of what Pakistanis and in particular the Inter-Services Intelligence agency have been able to accomplish.

'The Pakistan security forces are neither incompetent nor negligent about their sacred duty to protect Pakistan.

'There shall not be any doubt that any repetition of such an act will have disastrous consequences.'

However, Islamabad stopped short of calling the raid on Osama's compound an illegal operation and insisted relations with Washington have not hit rock bottom.

'We acknowledge the United States is an important friend,' said Mr Bashir.

'Basically Pakistan and US relations are moving in the right direction.'

Despite Islamabad's protests, US President Barack Obama said he reserved the right to take action again in Pakistan, as outrage grew in the US that Pakistani officials there had either tolerated or helped the biggest-ever mass murderer of Americans, or were so inept that he lived right under their noses for years.

Osama is believed to have been living for up to five years in a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, a suburb of the Pakistani capital, not far from an elite military academy.

The Wall Street Journal reported that US and European intelligence officials with direct working knowledge of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the ISI Directorate, believe active or retired Pakistani military or intelligence officials had helped Osama.

'There's no doubt he was protected by some in the ISI,' the newspaper reported the European official as saying.

Similar elements linked to the ISI have aided other Pakistan-based terror groups, the Haqqani militant network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Journal reported the intelligence agents as saying.

But it also said that US officials do not believe that Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, or ISI head, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew where Osama was or of any assistance that may have been provided to him.

Both men have remained silent about what they knew or did not know about Osama's presence. They have both met Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari since the US raid, but no mention has been made in public of those discussions.

And a US official said: 'The United States does not have any indication at this point that there was official Pakistani knowledge of Osama's whereabouts.'

Meanwhile, Pakistani commentators raised concerns over the strength of the country's defences, especially the military's ability to protect its substantial nuclear arsenal.

One of the military's biggest advocates, journalist Kamran Khan, whose nightly television show garners big audiences, led the chorus: 'We had the belief that our defence was impenetrable, but look what has happened. Such a massive intrusion and it went undetected.'

Mr Khan also posed the question on many Pakistani minds: 'What is the guarantee that our strategic assets and security installations are safe?'