It is an open secret among the counterterrorism agencies engaged in the war on al Qaeda that the United States and Pakistani military and intelligence were in some sort of rapport before and during the US special raid of May 2 that ended the life of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, in the North West Frontier of Pakistan, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports.
The battle of contradictory accounts Washington and Islamabad were conducting this week on what really happened in the raided villa will not be allowed to get out of hand because, "Tomorrow is another day for the war on terrorism and a united effort for gains," one Western intelligence officer commented.
"At the same time," said the source, "While not slamming the door, neither are the Americans or the Pakistanis letting each other completely off the hook. Both want to make sure that their opposite number doesn't go it alone."
The verbal sparring between Washington and Islamabad is a feature of the following scenario:
1. The two governments are contradicting each other on the degree of cooperation between them: US officials deny Pakistan knowledge of or cooperation in the operation whereas Pakistani officials insist it was a joint venture and refuse to back down.
Lieut. Gen. Asad Durrani, former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services-Intelligence agency, ISI, said Thursday, May 5, that it was "inconceivable" for his government to have been ignorant of the US commando raid on the bin Laden's compound, but are officially denying it to stave off domestic backlash.
Mystery of the 25-minute camera blackout
2. The US-Pakistani cooperation argument threads through the questions surrounding the target's positive identification.
White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the US Navy Seals who raided the house could not have been mistaken about Bin Laden's identity. He did not explain why.
Western intelligence officers with experience in such operations say there is no such thing as zero error – unless someone already present on the scene identifies the target from his own firsthand knowledge or a laser indicator points straight at him.
Durrani, though officially retired, would not have spoken without clearance from his former masters. He went on to say that Pakistani intelligence was disavowing any role in the US operation as a "political" maneuver necessary to rebut charges of working too closely with the Americans.
"It is …likely that they did know [about the raid]," he said. "It is not conceivable that it was done without the involvement of Pakistani security forces at some stage. They were involved and they were told they were in position. The army chief was in his office, the cordons had been thrown around that particular place. The Pakistani helicopters were also in the air so that indicates that it was involved."
3. One of the mysteries surrounding the episode concerned the 25-minute blackout during which live feed from cameras mounted on the helmets of the US commandos was cut off. On Wednesday, CIA Chief Leon Panetta said in an interview with PBS: "I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where… we really didn't know just exactly what was going on. And there were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information."
Photos leaked of three unarmed men in pools of blood
Shortly after he made these comments, the Reuters agency in Islamabad announced that it had acquired photographs taken about an hour after the US assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad showing three dead men lying in pools of blood with no weapons in sight. The photos were taken by a Pakistani security official who entered the compound after the early morning raid on Monday.
Those leaked photos sent a double-barreled signal from Islamabad to Washington:
• Stop saying there are no pictures of what happened inside the building. There are and we have them. That does not mean we will publish them all at this time.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources note that the existence of such pictures would confirm the remarks affirming Pakistani involvement in the bin Laden hit one way or another by Pakistani Foreign minister Salman Bashar on Wednesday and by Lieut. Gen. Durrani, who Thursday detailed Pakistani input and emphasized that "they were in position."
• By leaking the photographic evidence of the bodies of three unarmed men, Islamabad sought to stop the unending flow of conflicting versions put out by the Obama administration about what went on inside the villa and set the record straight about Pakistan's contribution to its success.
Before that, a statement from Islamabad had forced the White House spokesman to backtrack on an earlier statement that Bin Laden had died in a firefight and admit he was unarmed when killed.
The helicopter crash was the only digression from the agreed plan
Wednesday, US sources produced a new version which claimed that although Bin Laden was indeed unarmed, his family members, including his son, were armed and fired at the US forces.
The Pakistani comeback came in the form of the photographs leaked to Reuters which showed unarmed, unidentified Pakistanis lying dead in the death room of the villa.
The absence of weapons on those photos not only rebutted oft-amended accounts from Washington but proved that the al Qaeda leader and the people around him felt safe enough under the protection of Pakistani intelligence and military to dispense with weapons.
The verbiage flying back and forth between Washington and Islamabad has revealed the contours of the assistance Pakistan rendered to the mission to kill Bin Laden.
First of all, the operation was carried out on the basis of precise information relayed to Washington about the activities in the villa – Bin Laden's movements, routines and possibly the times he went to bed. The airspace over Abbottabad was kept clear of traffic to allow the American helicopters to touch down, drop the troops and take off without interference.
The only digression from the joint plan known to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources was the crash of one of the four American helicopters taking part in the operation. Washington reported the copter made a hard landing because of a mechanical fault and no American soldiers were injured. Other sources claim that it was fired on in an attack that took the Americans and Pakistanis by surprise and that some injuries must have been unavoidable.
What business did three top Pakistani officials contract in Kabul?
After establishing the fact of US-Pakistani collaboration in terminating Osama bin Laden, the whys and wherefores remain to be addressed.
At this early date, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources cannot precisely name which members of the Pakistani government, military or intelligence elites worked with Washington on the plan, or whether only certain factions were involved.
Most Western intelligence agencies with a presence in Pakistan incline to view that some members of all three communities may have had a hand in the US operation which was essentially the outcome of a quid pro quo deal with the Obama administration and the CIA, whose broad terms are disclosed here:
We turn Osama bin Laden over, you terminate him and together we can embark on the road toward ending the Afghanistan war.
In the next part of the scenario, Pakistani military intelligence undertakes to bring the Taliban to the table for negotiating the war's conclusion. In return, the US and Afghanistan will guarantee to support Pakistan's interests in Kabul.
This would entail Washington and Kabul abandoning their evenhanded policy in the contest between Pakistan and India for influence in the war-torn country and throw their weight behind Islamabad.
Monday, April 25, a week before the Bin Laden raid, the head of Pakistan's Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, took part in the "passing out parade" at the prestigious Kakul military academy in Abbottabad, Pakistan's West Point. The reviewing stand on which he stood was 400 meters from the bin Laden villa.
Addressing the ceremony, Kayani said the "back of terrorism" in Pakistan had been broken, thanks to the sacrifices of Pakistan's soldiers.
A formula emerging for ending the Afghan War
The impression gained in many Western intelligence circles was that Gen. Kayani knew that the al Qaeda leader's end was near and chose his words to correspond with the line Islamabad has taken since the event. He is also believed to have used his visit to Abbottabad for a last inspection to make sure that the US raid went smoothly.
Those circles point tellingly to the visit Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Gen. Kayani and ISI Director-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha paid to Kabul, Saturday, April 16, three weeks before the Abbottabad operation. This top-level Pakistani party is believed to have tied up the last ends of the deal between the three partners, the US, Pakistan and the Afghan government, the trigger for which was to be the death of the al Qaeda leader.
From the American perspective, his death achieved the objective for which the US went to war in Afghanistan in 2001straight after al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on America: Osama bin Laden, who masterminded those attacks after first trying and failing to destroy New York's Twin Towers in 1993, the evil genius of global jihadist terror, was dead at the hands of American troops. Even the high command which had supported him in Afghanistan and Pakistan had more or less broken up.
And so, President Obama is free to set a tight timeline for bringing American troops home.
The deal has placed Afghan President Hamid Karzai within reach of his goals of getting US and NATO forces out of his country and forming a power-sharing government with the Taliban.
The next move in the game is up to Islamabad: The Taliban's hard core leaders, headed by Mullah Omar, have yet to be brought to the negotiating table, a maneuver that will require time and delicate handling.
Much will depend on whether Taliban decides to stage a major attack to avenge the death of the al Qaeda leader or leaves it to another ally or branch of bin Laden's organization.
If Taliban opts for revenge against the Americans who killed its close ally and partner instead of diplomacy, the White House's plan will be thrown off course and the Afghan War will continue with greater intensity than ever.