The Husain Huqqani Revelation: Did the Civilians keep the Military in dark on OBL?

ISSSP Reflections No. 50, March 14, 2017

Author: D Suba Chandran

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Did the civilian administration of Pakistan during Zardari’s tenure gave intelligence information to the US on Osama bin Laden’s presence in the country, leading to the latter’s killing? Was the Pakistani military establishment kept out of picture in this Islamabad-Washington collusion? Did Husain Huqqani, then the Pakistani Ambassador to US facilitate this?

In his recent commentary published in the Washington Post, Husain Huqqani former Pakistani Ambassador to the US during 2008-11 (Obama-Zardari period) has touched a raw nerve that is likely to echo within Pakistan and in the policy circles elsewhere in the next few weeks.

There is nothing astonishing in his claim that he forged a relationship during Obama’s campaign itself (Huqqani was at the Hudson Institute in Washington and teaching at Boston before he was appointed as Pakistani Ambassador) helping him to build a closer cooperation between Pakistan and US. But what follows is a chocker; he claims, “These connections eventually enabled the United States to discover and eliminate bin Laden without depending on Pakistan’s intelligence service or military, which were suspected of sympathy toward Islamist militants.” (emphasis added) According to Huqqani, the US and the civilian administration in Pakistan could manage tracking OBL without the help of the ISI or the military, through the stationing of “US Special Operations and intelligence personnel on the ground in Pakistan.”

Huqqani also reveals that the US kept Pakistan “officially out of the loop about the operation…when Obama decided to send in Navy SEAL Team 6 without notifying Pakistan.” If the above is true, then one can conclude the military operation against the OBL was owned and executed by the US without the knowledge of the civilian and military establishments of Pakistan. But it also underlines another important point: the civilian administration may not be aware of the OBL operation, but was well aware of the hunt for Osama. According to Huqqani, the civilian administration in Pakistan in fact helped it, by facilitating the presence of the Special Operations and intelligence personnel of the US in Pakistan.

The above facilitation leads to another interesting question – if the civilian administration in Pakistan and its Ambassador to the US had worked closely with the Americans in finding Osama, why blame only Dr Shakil Afridi, who is now in prison for doing the same? (Dr Afridi is now in prison for helping the CIA to locate OBL through a vaccine programme)

Why did Zardari and Huqqani decide to work closely with the US? And why did they keep military outside the loop?

For Huqqani, the need to work with the US was crystal clear. According to him, he was appointed by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who had “wanted to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, improve relations with India and Afghanistan, and limit the role of Pakistan’s military intelligence service in defining the country’s foreign policy”. (Emphasis added) In return, “they sought generous US aid to improve the ailing Pakistani economy.”

The above pursuit of the PPP government clearly underlines its original objectives, intended road map and possible threats. More than ending the support for the Taliban and improving relations with Kabul and New Delhi, for Islamabad the primary objective then should have been to restart the US civilian aid to Pakistan. Perhaps, this should have led Zardari, Gilani and Huqqani to work closely with the US. President Obama was willing to open the civilian aid, provided Pakistan addressed American concerns – action against the Taliban, improved relations with India and Afghanistan, and intelligence against the al Qaeda leadership, especially Osama bin Laden.

It was no coincidence that the drone programme led by the CIA, peaked during this period. The drones were effectively used by the US in the FATA region targeting and neutralizing militants belonging to the Taliban and al Qaeda during Zardari-Obama tenure. Though the drones were in operation even during Bush-Musharraf period, it peaked subsequently under the Obama administration.

The crucial question in this context – if what Huqqani claims is true, why did the Zardari team decide to work with the US, keeping Gen Kayani outside the loop? There could be two explanations; first, the Zardari team did not trust the military and its ISI in reshaping Pakistan’s support to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Second, perhaps the PPP government wanted to use the opportunity to undermine the role of military in Pakistan’s decision making process.

To be fair to Pakistan’s military, it did help the CIA in pursuing militant leaders within Pakistan – especially belonging to the al Qaeda and its affiliates. Raids did take place all over Pakistan and numerous al Qaeda leaders were either nabbed or killed in those operations. However, this was more a tactical move, than a strategic shift in Pakistani military’s approach towards Taliban and al Qaeda. While they were willing to work with the US, it was a limited cooperation; on the other hand, the US expected a complete turnaround in Pakistan’s approach towards these groups.

The larger reason for the Zardari team’s attempt to build a strategic link with the US administration should have been internal political equation within Pakistan. The military establishment and its ISI never trusted the PPP; certainly not Zardari. The latter was a shrewd politician to be aware of this and realize that the long term challenge for the PPP will always come from the khakis. However, to undermine or even limit the role of military in decision making – there is neither political consensus with other major parties, nor a public support against military intervention in politics. Zardari would have wanted to use the American support to keep the military away from crucial decision making process.

Perhaps such a thought process got further strengthened in the immediate aftermath of Osama’s killing in Abbotabad. Zardari and Huqqani would have calculated that Osama’s presence close to a military installation and the American raid deep into Pakistani territory would have shamed and undermined the predominant role of Pakistan’s military and the public perception towards it. The “Memogate” episode (where Huqqani was supposed to have authored a memo for the Americans to support the political process in Pakistan by undermining the military) post OBL killing underlines the above.

Unfortunately for Zardari and Huqqani, the public perception did not go fully against the military. The latter did not get “shamed” as was expected with OBL’s presence and the American raid. Rather, the ghairat brigade in Pakistan went after the Americans for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. Huqqani was subsequently made the villain and was forced to resign for colluding with the Americans.

So, what has changed?

Of course, much has changed since then. There is a new Prime Minister in Islamabad and the government is led by the PML-N and not the PPP. There is a new Army Chief in Pakistan; Gen Bajwa has replaced Gen Sharif who had earlier succeeded Gen Kayani. There is a new Pakistani Ambassador to the US; Huqqani had to resign following the “Memogate” though he is continuing in the US as an academic and is persona non grata in Pakistan. More importantly, there is a new President in the White House.

But, do these changes mean anything substantial to the ground relations and issues? Though there would be a new foreign secretary in Pakistan, the foreign policy vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan will be shaped more by the GHQ. There has been an emphasis within Pakistan to reshape its approach towards Afghanistan and militancy; it did not take place during Gen Sharif’s period and is too soon judge on how Gen Bajwa would respond.

The military is well entrenched in political decision making; if the civilian establishment has to consider taming the military through external support it would be a futile approach, as Huqqani would have realised by now. Neither can the Parliament bulldoze the military through political strength, as Nawaz Sharif attempted in the late 1990s. The media is vibrant and so is the civil society; if the liberal and democratic section is getting stronger, the other side is also equally active and politically powerful, especially on the streets.

The military is unlikely to give up its predominant position. The political parties should attempt to strengthen themselves, by expanding their popular support and the interactions between them both in the Parliament and outside it, through a democratic culture. The jalsa politics, especially led by Imran Khan is disruptive and is unlikely to strengthen the position of political parties and the Parliament. The Panama politics now and the Islamabad agitations in 2014 would reveal that the problem lies elsewhere. And it cannot be addressed by getting the American support.

The civil-military relations in Pakistan will have to evolve from within. The military may have an edge to take outside support, or use external environment to strengthen its position. The civilian institutions will have to look inwards to strengthen their position. For the political parties, support and strength come from their people; that is where they should aim at.


About the Author

Dr. D. Suba Chandran is Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. He can be reached at <subachandran@gmail.com>

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