Thursday, September 18, 2014

BY SAEED SHAH | MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

ISLAMABAD -- A month after U.S. Navy SEALs shot and killed Osama bin Laden, Pakistan's investigation into how the al-Qaida leader hid out here undetected for at least five years has hit major stumbling blocks even before it has begun, leaving politicians and analysts to wonder whether Pakistan will ever get to the bottom of the affair.

A five-member commission was named Tuesday to oversee the probe, nearly a month after U.S. Navy SEALs shot and killed bin Laden on May 2 in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad. But one of the members declined to serve and the others have said they were never asked if they were willing to undertake what's likely to be a controversial assignment.

On Thursday, the leader of the biggest opposition party rejected the inquiry team, while a lawsuit was filed in the courts to block its work. Pakistani public opinion, meanwhile, is badly divided, with many Pakistanis openly skeptical that bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad on May 2, believing instead that the U.S. staged the incident to allow it to pressure Pakistan over other matters.

The U.S. has demanded that Pakistan explain how bin Laden remained hidden until he was tracked down by U.S. commandos and determine what "support network" sustained him while he was hiding in Pakistan. But few here think Pakistan will be able to do so satisfactorily, with the commission's independence and organization in question.

U.S. hopes that the Pakistani military will launch a major offensive in North Waziristan, the Pakistani region believed to be a sanctuary for both Afghan insurgents and al-Qaida, also face a tough road. Pakistani officials have offered conflicting views about whether such an operation will take place, and some believe that if it does, it will be limited in scope -- unlikely to satisfy U.S. demands.

The one bright spot in U.S.-Pakistan terrorist cooperation appears to be an agreement to jointly hunt down four al-Qaida and Afghan insurgency leaders thought by U.S. officials to be in Pakistan.

The commission "mandated to ascertain the full facts regarding the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan" will be headed by Javed Iqbal, a sitting member of Pakistan's Supreme Court. Neither he nor the chief justice was consulted on the appointment, according to Asma Jahangir, a distinguished lawyer who leads the senior bar association in Pakistan.

A retired judge who was also named to the panel, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, said he wouldn't serve, and analysts have called into question the independence of the other three: a retired general, a former police chief and an ex-Pakistani ambassador.

"The commission has been stillborn. The government never had any intention of holding a serious inquiry," said Najam Sethi, a political analyst. "They've handed over all decision-making on foreign policy and terrorism to the military."

Jihadists and their ties to the military are deeply sensitive issues in Pakistan, sure to be at the center of any serious inquiry into the bin Laden debacle. Also key to the investigation will be determining why, or if, Pakistan's intelligence services failed to detect his presence.

But whether the commission could tackle such issues remains an open question. While the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, elected in 2008, did initially try to exercise some control over security and foreign policy, the effort was challenged by the military and many believe now that Zardari largely has given up trying to exercise control over those issues.

Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who heads the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which forced the government to agree to an independent commission, said Thursday that the members of the inquiry team had been chosen "unilaterally," without consulting his party.

"It has been a month since May 2nd. What is the government afraid of? Revealing some secrets? Those secrets should be opened," Sharif told a news conference in Islamabad.

While Washington had initially suggested that the Pakistani military could be "complicit" in hiding bin Laden, which incensed the Pakistan's uniformed commanders, the U.S. has since stated that there is "no evidence" of any high level official knowledge of his whereabouts. However, to re-establish trust in Islamabad, the U.S. has asked for co-operation in hunting down some of its most-wanted extremist leaders.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that there was an agreement for "joint cooperation" on killing or capturing at least four figures: al-Qaida deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, key Afghan insurgency commander Sirajuddin Haqqani and Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri, who has close ties to al-Qaida. Like bin Laden, U.S. intelligence believes that they're all on Pakistani territory. Haqqani and Kashmiri were based in North Waziristan, though they may have recently relocated.

The Pakistani military has given mixed signals in recent days about whether it will bow to long-standing U.S. demands for an operation in North Waziristan.

This week a Pakistani general, Asif Yasin Malik, didn't rule out an offensive there but said that an operation would come "when it is militarily and otherwise in the national interest." The Pakistani army has consistently said that its forces are stretched elsewhere.

Aid organizations in Pakistan told McClatchy Newspapers this week that they hadn't been told to prepare for an imminent operation in North Waziristan. Any full-scale offensive would mean that the population of the area would come flooding out, which would require humanitarian assistance.

A more limited operation could clear the two major towns in North Waziristan, Mir Ali and Miram Shah, but that would still leave the rest of the area as a staging post for Afghan insurgents, especially those from the Haqqani network.

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