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Q&A: A New Book's Explosive Claims About Pakistan and Osama Bin Laden

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Carlotta Gall's blockbuster story in The New York Times Magazine this week claims that the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) had knowledge of Osama Bin Laden's hiding place in Abbottabad. According to Gall, the ISI and Pakistan's military establishment also supported the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The piece is an excerpt from her new book, The Wrong Enemy: American in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, which argues that the failing American mission in Afghanistan is largely the result of Pakistani duplicity, which has consisted of the country taking American aid dollars while still covertly supporting the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Gall has reported extensively from Pakistan and Afghanistan for The New York Times, and is currently the newspaper's North Africa correspondent. We spoke by phone this week about the details of Pakistan's relationship to Bin Laden, the war in Afghanistan, and the long, depressing history of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Isaac Chotiner: What is the newest or biggest revelation about Bin Laden and his relationship with the ISI?

Carlotta Gall: The ISI was actually running a special desk within the organization to handle Bin Laden, which meant hide him and talk to him. They knew he was there and protected him. That has never been said before by anyone. I only have one source but it’s very convincing source and it had to be said and put out there.

IC: You took some criticism for the single source but there were two other interesting revelations. The first is that when you brought the issue of Pakistani knowledge up with American officials, who don’t want to criticize a nominal ally, they were sympathetic to what you had heard.

CG: Yes.

IC: And the second point, which I found the most convincing, was that Bin Laden was communicating with ISI assets, such as Hafiz Saeed, who is the head of a Pakistani extremist group. The point, I think, is that he wouldn’t be communicating with these people if he was concerned about the ISI finding him.

CG: Yes, he was communicating with people that the ISI talks to and is in close touch with.

IC: Do you have any sense of the substance of those communications, for example how much Bin Laden was revealing about where he was or what he was up to?

CG: There was a cell phone in the compound that revealed numbers to other connections in Pakistan. There were letters between him and Mullah Omar and him and Hafiz Saeed, and those are two people very close to the ISI. It is inconceivable to anyone who follows all this that the ISI did not know he was corresponding with them.

IC: But do you think he was communicating where he was?

CG: We know from the Americans that his courier was going to Peshawar and talking to people and bringing black flash drives with news and email for Bin Laden.

IC: When, in the past, you brought up the idea of Pakistani knowledge of Bin Laden, you got similar, stone-faced responses.

CG: Yes there was a moment after the raid where they were talking quite a lot and we had some complaints about the Pakistanis. And then everything went quiet because I think Pakistan must have complained. One official said they were all walking on eggshells to mend the relationship and try to repair things and bring them back to normal. I don’t agree with this idea. I think it is a huge mistake. It should be openness. That can change Pakistan, and I don’t have any qualms revealing what I have got.

More recently, when I took all this information about ISI knowledge and an ISI desk to American officials, there was this feeling that this is what they always suspected and knew and that it makes complete sense.  But no one would say precisely what they knew.

IC: For over 40 years we have been paying part of Pakistan’s military bill, and thus in a way we were paying for them to hide Osama Bin Laden, or at the very least to aid groups sympathetic to him.

CG: Yeah, it is like the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

IC: The devil’s bargain hasn’t worked out.

CG: It really doesn’t work. And it deceives the people of both countries, even Congressmen. It is angering. But there is a real division between the military in America who would say that we were on the right track in investigating these things, and the diplomats who don’t want to admit what is going on or don't know what is going on. There is a big divide here between the departments. That is where everything goes wrong

IC: Your colleague Mark Mazzetti has written about that divide well. A colleague of mine said something interesting today, which is that in a way it is shocking that no one has been protesting this today at the Pakistani embassy or wherever. People are so used to this. And Congressmen are not shouting about this.

CG: Yes, yes.

IC: The broader argument of your book is that the war in Afghanistan has largely been sabotaged by Pakistan. If this hadn’t been the case, do you think things would be much better in Afghanistan?

CG: 100%. Without Pakistan or with a cooperative Pakistan that strove to demobilize the Taliban, it would have been all over. It was all over in 2002. They were defeated, the people had turned against them. Without Pakistan it wouldn’t have happened. I really do think they did a callous and misguided thing to support the Taliban and bring them back. It is a military-led policy which is not in the interest of Pakistan either.

IC: Yes, Pakistani civil society and even the military have been completely degraded by this choice. Tens of thousands of Pakistani are dead.

CG: They are in a cycle and can’t stop. They need the civilians to get ahold of the military.

IC: I thought the most shocking part of your story concerned Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007. It has always been assumed that it was the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda who did this, and you note that Al Qaeda ordered the attack, but you also put more blame on the military government. They didn’t just provide inadequate security. You argue that they willed her death as well as covered it up.

CG: That is a good choice of words, “willed.” The subject is a difficult one to read. But there was a meeting where the military heads discussed it and there was some suggestion that they wanted it to happen. Many people who know this stuff believe the Pakistani Taliban and the ISI and Al Qaeda are all one thing.  They all work together. Whichever way you look at it, I think they have a great deal of guilt.

IC: You seem to be saying that we have made too many excuses for Pakistan, but what would full-on confrontation look like? That is very scary.

CG: I hope I am not suggesting that. Some people think I have it in for Pakistan. I don’t. I think the right course is diplomacy and pulling out of Afghanistan but still supporting both those countries and trying to move them to a better place. More openness with their people is required. You have to run a better government with more democracy and more openness. You have to discuss this. They need civilians to come in and get a grip on the country.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.