By Ejaz Haider
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press release PR. NO.152/2011 (Date: 03/05/2011) would be a laugh if this matter were not so serious. But since MoFA has come up with this joke at the behest of the military, and it is no time to mince words, I shall direct my questions to that institution.
Firstly, I want to construct a high-wall compound right next to the Pakistan Military Academy, one with barbed wire on top. Next, when someone comes asking who I am because PMA is a high-security area, I am going to flash the MoFA logic in his face and say this is in line with my “culture of privacy and security”, thank you.
This is nonsense, at its most nonsensical, especially because in an earlier paragraph we are told that “As far as the target compound is concerned, ISI had been sharing information with CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009”. Really? If that is true then what stopped the ISI from a “friendly” visit to the compound to find out who might be living there?
Ah! No. I got that wrong because we are also told that “It is important to highlight that taking advantage of much superior technological assets, CIA exploited the intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Laden”. For some reason, in this particular case, we fell short of the superior assets required for the job. And look at the ungrateful Yanks. They are officially asking us to explain the compound even as they acted all along on our leads.
Not just that. When they did act, they didn’t even bother to inform us – “The Government of Pakistan categorically denies the media reports suggesting that its leadership, civil as well as military, had any prior knowledge of the US operation against Osama bin Laden carried out in the early hours of 2nd May 2011.”
That’s just great! First the ISI didn’t have the capacity to operate on its own leads and bust Mr Bin Laden, and then the Pakistani military, army and air force, didn’t have any knowledge of the incursion by a small attacking force.
I have, at this point, to choose between branding the military supremely incompetent or monumentally stupid. And what if it turns out that it is both? Consider a scenario.
Going by the official US account, two helicopters, most probably MH60s Blackhawks enter Pakistani airspace flying from Jalalabad. They fly low and slow and do not follow a linear trajectory to avoid radar detection. The MoFA statement tells us that “US helicopters entered Pakistani airspace making use of blind spots in the radar coverage due to hilly terrain. US helicopters’ undetected flight into Pakistan was also facilitated by the mountainous terrain, efficacious use of latest technology and ‘nap of the earth’ flying techniques”. [NB: this paragraph is a giveaway on who might have vetted this press release.]
Using a combination of latest technology, blind spots, ‘nap of the earth’ techniques, the helicopters enter Pakistani airspace and remain undetected by Peshawar Airbase, Risalpur, Ghazi, and Chaklala. I wish I knew if Thandiani still operates, though there is no reason why it shouldn’t.
What this means is, the machines, even with drop tanks, were guzzling fuel because for ‘nap of the earth’ flying and a non-linear trajectory, they would also need to lessen engine sound and could not go full throttle. That and low flying means they were consuming much more fuel. Once on the target, they would need to keep rotors running even if they landed. Chances are one might have landed while the other hovered. Forty minutes there and they head back to home base.
Two questions here. One, given the combat radii of both machines, the distance they had to cover, and the fuel they had to consume, they would have needed a forward refuelling facility. If we provided that facility, why are we saying we just didn’t know who came in and went? Of course, if we were a part of it, as we should have been if the ISI was providing ground intelligence on the compound, why are we feigning ignorance?
Second question: Let’s say we couldn’t detect the incursion because the helis, as one report goes, were advanced stealth machines. That, in fact, is a very strong possibility. Still, what excuse do we have for not picking up the activity after a foreign force had operated for 40 minutes in a town which has PMA, AMC Regimental Centre, Piffer Regimental Centre, Baloch Regimental Centre, and well, not much but, the Army School of Music?
Let’s assume none of these facilities has even local defence capability of which the MoFA press release makes such song and dance. The lone helicopter then flew back to home base. If it went back to Jalalabad, it still needed at least an hour given low cruise speed. Do we not have the capability to scramble jets in all this time to force-land a helicopter? The MoFA statement says “On receipt of information regarding the incident, PAF scrambled its jets within minutes”. I am talking a minimum of 60 minutes which is many minutes more than “within minutes”. Or maybe when the statement says “on receipt of information” it means the call from the White House which is supposed to have extracted “congratulations” from us.
In which case, may I say that there was no reason for the “alacrity” shown by PAF because the bird had already escaped?
There are only two reasons we didn’t react. One, we were in on it but for other reasons were warned to keep our mouths shut or else; two, we didn’t intercept the helicopter going back because by then we had known what the force had done and had no space left for interdicting the Americans.
Either way, the army-ISI combine has to give answers about what happened and why. We must also agitate for candid discussion of policies that have made us a laughing stock of the world. This country and its honour belongs as much to us as to the khakis.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.