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Implausible deniability: Pakistan must have known about bin Laden's compound

A Pakistani youngster shows metal pieces collected from wheat field outside a house, seen background, where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2011.

Anjum Naveed/AP/Anjum Naveed/AP

Duplicity, plausible deniability and allies of convenience were always key themes of The Great Game - the long struggle for strategic advantage played out between Russian and the British empires in Central Asia, including what is now Pakistan.

And not much has changed since the 19th century. There's a short game and a long game, and little is as it seems.

That's why it's hard for many to accept that Pakistan's all pervasive and powerful intelligence service hadn't a clue that Osama bin Laden was living comfortably around the corner from the military's elite academy in an unusually large and newly constructed, high-walled compound.

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That strains credulity as much as the notion that Pakistan's sophisticated air defences - the country has nuclear weapons and is on a constant state of high alert against threat of hostilities with rival India - were entirely unaware of a major, threatening incursion to within 10 minutes flying time of Islamabad, the capital.

"The notion that one fine day bin Laden adorned a burqa and made a trip over perhaps the most treacherous 180 miles of terrain in the world, from Tora Bora to Abbottabad, without catching the attention of Pakistan's vast, richly endowed, and unaccountable military establishment is as ridiculous as any conspiracy theories," Mosharraf Zaidi, a prominent Pakistani analyst, wrote this week in the periodical Foreign Policy. "It is even less likely that … Pakistani authorities did not know about the military operation that killed bin Laden until it was over. … It doesn't take 40 minutes to start to scramble planes, or get troops to Abbottabad, and there is no getting into the town by land or air without the expressed consent of Pakistan's security establishment. This may not have been an official joint operation, but it was almost certainly a collective effort."

So how it is that dozens of troops in at least four Americans helicopters - and maybe some warplanes providing high cover - managed to fly undetected and unchallenged deep into Pakistan, land in Abbottabad, stay 40 minutes, engage in a firefight, blow up one chopper that suffered a mechanical problem, and then fly back out of the country before even the local police responded, let alone Pakistan's air force?

The most likely explanation is that some senior Pakistani air force general was quietly told by an American counterpart that the incursion was to be ignored, or at least any response was to be too little too late, even if the precise mission and it's target were not disclosed. Otherwise, the two countries might unwittingly have wound up in a nasty air battle.

We didn't tell anyone - including Pakistan - that the operation was under way until it was over, the Obama White House says. That matches Pakistan's version. "The events of Sunday were not a joint operation," President Asif Ali Zardari, insisted in a Washington Post article seemingly intended to defend Pakistan's anti-terrorism record.

Plausible deniability is crucial to the vexed relationship between the United States and Pakistan.

Just as U.S. Predator drones attacks against Taliban suspects in Pakistan's remote tribal areas are officially protested by Islamabad even as both countries covertly agree and co-operate, the layers of deceit are vital to the relationship.

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Only occasionally do things get out of hand. For instance, Pakistan's "see-no-evil" acceptance of hundreds of covert CIA agents prowling the country was exposed - and denied - after one of them killed a pair of Pakistanis in broad daylight in Lahore. Getting out of that mess required Great-Game-like diplomatic finesse behind a bombast of threats from both sides.

Ultimately, America is playing the game to get out; to leave Afghanistan with a regime capable of enforcing control over its territory. It's a relatively short game. By contrast, Pakistan has to play the long game, knowing that - again - a superpower will leave and it may need to manipulate the players vying for control in Kabul.

Mr. Zaidi contends both governments understand the value of their mutual duplicity. As for the rest: "If Americans are confused about exactly what Pakistan is up to, they need to get in line. Pakistanis are more confused - utterly so."

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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