Why was Pakistan a safe haven for Osama? Pervasive corruption.

A newly leaked report details how Osama bin Laden could have been caught by any number of government functionaries over the years.

Anjum Naveed/AP/File
A Pakistani soldier stands near a compound where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 2, 2011.

Pakistan has struggled for the past two years to explain just how Osama bin Laden managed to hide out in one of its military towns. The answer, suggests a 336-page leaked judicial inquiry report, may lie in the sheer incompetence and corruption practiced by low-level government and military officials in the country.

In the nine years that Mr. bin Laden lived in Pakistan, the man who had a $25 million US bounty on his head could have been caught by any number of government functionaries. 

Among them was a traffic cop who stopped Mr. bin Laden and his Kuwaiti guard for speeding – and let them off after the matter was “quickly settled." How, exactly, isn't explained in the report, but bribing or talking one's way out of a ticket is a time-honored tradition here. In data released today, Transparency International found that 65 percent of surveyed Pakistanis say they or their family have bribed the police in the past year.

The judicial commission, whose report emerged yesterday, stops short of concluding that it was petty corruption and incompetence rather than official connivance that sheltered bin Laden. Regardless, the authors express dismay at the poor governance that forms the backdrop for the bin Laden chapter of Pakistan's history, much in the way that US inquiries into 9/11 dwelt on failures of government agencies to work together. 

Evidence of everyday corruption or simple dereliction of duty piles up in page after page of the report, including military and civilian officials who failed to flag the countless violations on how bin Laden’s property was acquired using falsified identification papers, breaches of the building code, and the lack of tax payments and building inspections. The police in Abbottabad reportedly also didn’t investigate a shooting incident on the property in 2010 or the residents’ secluded lifestyle. Intelligence agencies didn’t pay much attention to Abbottabad even though Umar Patek – wanted for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings – was arrested in that town.

Country in 'shambles' ?

All of these missed chances – often laughable in their simplicity – are explained away by the individuals responsible as just the usual corruption, "normal negligence," capacity issues, and lack of oversight by their departments.

The commission viewed these claims with some skepticism. “Any one of these lapses would in the normal circumstance be perfectly understandable,” the report’s authors write. “But the whole lot taken together added up to something that should not be so easily explained away. Even so, none of this added up to proof or even strong possibility of mischief. But taken together they suggested the possibility of something more sinister.”

Talat Aslam, senior editor at The News in Karachi, told the Monitor that the report depicts a country in “complete shambles.”

“No one comes out completely competent. The military, civilians, revenue department – it is one big bunch of real incompetence,” Mr. Aslam said. “The report leaves everything open to interpretation, [people] could have been complicit, and it’s very difficult to tell as there are lots of little things all over the place.”

'It's not just incompetence..."

Aslam agrees that there is an enabling environment that could allow a repeat of the bin Laden episode. “[P]eople don’t know who their neighbors are. There’s no alarm about mysterious things – where the mail is left collect[ing] or why the papers aren’t being picked up. It’s not just incompetence; everyone thinks that it is ‘none of our business.’”

To be sure, bin Laden took extensive precautions to shield himself from prying eyes in the neighborhood – and beyond. The report noted that the man "wanted dead or alive" by Texan George W. Bush wore a cowboy hat to avoid the chance of being seen by surveillance in the sky.

His family members lived a cloistered life on the compound, cut off from neighbors and even from their staff who lived at the compound. At one point, the daughter of one of the compound's guards recognized on Al Jazeera the image of the man she sometimes saw around the compound and knew as "poor uncle" not as Osama bin Laden. The family's TV privileges were revoked in a panic, and bin Laden stopped interacting with the family.

One of the few diversions behind the compound walls appeared to be gardening. Bin Laden apparently gave out prizes to the children who grew the best produce.

While bin Laden's children tended the garden, the Pakistani state appeared to be doing nothing to locate him. 

The report’s authors soundly reprimand the military and civilian leadership for its failure to detect bin Laden and prevent the raid, but also point to what they dub a "governance implosion syndrome" that allowed this to happen. Calling the extent of government incompetence to be "astounding, if not unbelievable," the report warns that “[i]ncompetence and negligence are the most serious charges that can be brought against any institution – especially those that have national security responsibility.”

The blame game 

Many of those interviewed in the report engaged in a grandiose blame game – from police officers blaming their lack of resources, to then-Pakistan Air Force chief calling Pakistanis “generally ill-informed” and “emotional people,” to former spy chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha blaming the government and police.

Mr. Pasha went further, and the commission quoted from him extensively as he endeavored to sum up the national malaise:

"'[W]e are a very weak state and also a very scared state. We will take anything and not respond. It all boils down to corrupt and low grade governance." ... There was 'apathy at every level; in every sector of national life.' Pakistani society was 'deeply penetrated.' The media was 'practically bought up' and nearly 'every one of our elite was purchasable.' A US intelligence officer had the gall to say 'you are so cheap ... we can buy you with a visa, with a visit to the US, even with a dinner ... we can buy anyone.' Accordingly, 'we are a failing state even if we are not yet a failed state.'"

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