A Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk of the US Army

Were the Pakistani Army and Civilian Government completely in the dark about the impending assault on Osama Bin Laden or did they collaborate to bring about this closure?

The answer to this may have considerable impact on how things unfold in the days to come in the US-Pak relations.

Even though the White House Press Statement has been categorical that this was solely an US operation and no information was shared at all with Pakistan about it, many argue that this couldn’t have been carried out deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge and approval of the top echelons of Pakistani military and civilian government.

I would, however, beg to differ with the above opinion. Here is how I believe the top-secret operation unfolded.

Let us begin with the believable and apparently incontrovertible first.

Osama Bin Laden is finally dead, killed in an operation carried out by the US Special Forces deep inside Pakistani territory in his hideout.

The hideout was a fortified compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, barely a kilometer from the Pakistan Military Academy and where at least a brigade of the Pakistan Army is based. Abbottabad is about 150 Km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The news first came from an address by the President of the United States, Barack Obama from White House late in the night of May 1, categorically stating that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by an operation mounted by US Special Forces in Abbottabad in his hide out ‘deep inside of Pakistan’. The President stated: (click to see full text/video of the address)

“And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden.  It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground.  I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.  And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.  No Americans were harmed.  They took care to avoid civilian casualties.  After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

Later, at a White House Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official, it was categorically stated: (click to see full text)

We shared our intelligence on this bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan.  That was for one reason and one reason alone:  We believed it was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel.  In fact, only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance.

Shortly after the raid, U.S. officials contacted senior Pakistani leaders to brief them on the intent and the results of the raid.  We have also contacted a number of our close allies and partners throughout the world.

It is of course inconceivable that the Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI, and hence the top echelons of the Pakistani Army did not know about Osama Bin Laden’s presence ‘deep inside Pakistan’, ensconced in a fortified hideout barely a kilometer away from its elite military academy in a garrison town teeming with its personnel. In all likelihood, Pakistani intelligence ensured his survival and protection for close to a decade after 9/11.

In view of the above, there is a strong line of argument that Osama’s whereabouts had been finally given to the US Forces by Pakistani intelligence and the claim that this was solely an US operation was in fact a clever denial to ensure Pakistan does not suffer a backlash from Osama’s comrades or other jihadi elements.

I have reasons to disagree with the above line of argument because there doesn’t seem to be any credible explanations to questions raised against it.

What had suddenly changed that the establishment that had gone to such extraordinary lengths to protect Osama and deny knowledge of his existence on Pakistani soil for so long consistently would give him up to the US now?

Nothing that comes to my notice. Regardless of whether Osama was now still and asset or had become a liability, there doesn’t seem to be any extraordinary pressure on the Pakistani military from US to suddenly decide to give him up.

Moreover, why would they need to do it in a way that would raise serious questions about their complicity in protecting him for years by giving away his hideout in the heart of Pakistan where he could have hardly holed up without their knowledge? After all, all that would have been needed to spook Osama out of Abbottabad to a more convenient and remote location, where he could have been ambushed would have been to simply leak the message to him that his hideout had been compromised.

Also, if indeed the information of his hideout had been leaked to the US by Pakistani intelligence, why would the President of United States categorically make a statement embarrassing Pakistan?

On the other hand, regardless of the exact details as to how the intelligence on tracing Osama to the Abbottabad hideout was developed, there are ample reasons to believe that this was indeed not shared with Pakistan and the assault on the fortified compound was carried out by US Special Forces in utmost secrecy. There are however, two difficulties that has to be first convincingly explained away.

First, how did three choppers (some reports say four) carrying the assault team of the US Special Forces evade detection to reach Abbottabad which must have had air defense and then egress unharmed completing its mission successfully?

Second, how did a ’40 minute’ operation go undetected or unchallenged by local Pakistani forces if it was carried out without ‘authorisation’ deep in the heart of Pakistan?

Both these difficulties can be very credibly explained away.

First, there would be very little risk of detection of the choppers if it didn’t have to fly in far over Pakistani territory for the actual mission. This essentially means that the operation was mounted from within Pakistan. As fragments of news reached that the choppers had flown out of Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, a little research and verifications with sources revealed that Ghazi Air base is near Tarbela in Haripur district, adjacent to and west of Abbottabad, both districts being part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. The flying time for the choppers from Ghazi Air Base to Osama’s compound in Abbottabad would be under 30 mins.

For a mission to be mounted from a Pakistani Air Base, it will have to have sufficient traffic of US personnel and aircrafts and choppers for a small team to go undetected at least for some time. Ghazi Air Base has that. If my sources are correct the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade of US Army, which flies Sikorsky UH 60 Blackhawks functioned out of the base and it is used by US Forces as a supply base. I have no access to know the quantum of traffic but I would hazard a guess that arrival and departure of 2-3 C130 Hercules and several Sikorsky MH 60 Blackhawks of 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment wouldn’t raise an eyebrow there. (please note that external appearance of a UH 60 Blackhawk and MH 60 Blackhawk aren’t significantly different, but they are very differently capable machines, the later completely kitted out to “Direct Action Penetration” or in plain language, insertion into enemy territory carrying Special Ops troops and acting as a helicopter gun ship as well, capable of flying in pitch darkness with sophisticated navigational aides such as FLIR)

I therefore have strong reason to believe that the operation was indeed mounted from Ghazi Air Base using Navy Seals, the assault team being flown in using Sikorsky MH 60 Blackhawks flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment of the US Army. There were reports also of choppers with troops ‘hanging out’. If it is true, then my guess is that Boeing MH 6J Little Birds too were used (in fact I tweeted this much earlier in the day). It must be noted that a C 130 Hercules can carry up to 3 Boeing MH 6J Little Birds with rotors folded in its cargo hold with rapid upload/offload for fast deployment. All the personnel and hardware could have conveniently arrived in Gazi Air Base from Afghanistan, conducted the raid, and before Pakistani Forces were aware of what was happening, could have been back in Afghanistan from there.

Second difficulty was of course how could the assault team rely that no local Pakistani Forces would engage?

If indeed the operation had been mounted from Gazi Air Base and the assault team reached the Abbottabad compound of Osama undetected with relative ease at the dead of night, there would be complete surprise at the assault, as indeed it seems to have happened. Even if the flying in of choppers and the sound of firefight certainly must have roused the local authorities and commanders, the element of surprise must have ensured that considerable time was lost in ascertaining what was unfolding and then getting directions from higher echelons. The planners of the operations must have had some idea what would the probable reaction be and how much time they would have to egress.

The most likely reaction from a local commander had perhaps been “would a full fledged assault by US Forces happen without sanction from Rawalpindi? If I hadn’t been instructed, that means I have no business to know!!” Before anyone got wiser to check back through hierarchies, the mission would have been accomplished as it indeed seems to have.

The helicopter that was reported to have crashed could have actually been hit by a RPG as I find it inconceivable that Osama’s security wouldn’t have some man-portable weapon against such probable assaults.

The fact that the Pakistan’s Civilian Government took an awkwardly long time to issue a statement and that GHQ had almost been silent, all points to the deep embarrassment, not that Osama had been hiding deep in the heart of Pakistan, but because the US could successfully mount an operation and kill him right under their noses keeping them in the dark.

It now remains to be seen how the aftermath of this plays out in the relationship between the US and Pakistan Army.

Further reading:

The New York Times story “Clues Gradually Led to the Location of Qaeda Chief” reaffirms that Pakistan was in the dark. It however claims that the operation was mounted from Jalalabad.