The US and Pakistan struck a secret deal almost a decade ago permitting a US operation against Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil similar to last week’s raid that killed the al-Qaeda leader, the Guardian has learned.
The deal was struck between former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and former US president George W. Bush after bin Laden escaped US forces in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in late 2001, according to serving and retired Pakistani and US officials.
Under its terms, Pakistan would allow US forces to conduct a unilateral raid inside its borders in search of bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the al-Qaeda No 3. Afterward, both sides agreed Pakistan would vociferously protest against the incursion.
“There was an agreement between Bush and Musharraf that if we knew where Osama was, we were going to come and get him,” said a former senior US official with knowledge of counter--terrorism operations. “The Pakistanis would put up a hue and cry, but they wouldn’t stop us.”
The deal puts a new complexion on the storm triggered by bin Laden’s death when a team of US Navy SEALs assaulted his home in the early hours of May 2.
Pakistani officials have insisted they knew nothing of the raid and Pakistan issued a strong rebuke to the US.
If the US conducts another such assault, “Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force,” Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the Pakistani parliament yesterday.
Days earlier, Musharraf, now running an opposition party from exile in London, emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the raid, terming it a “violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan.”
However, under the terms of the deal, while Pakistan may not have been informed of the assault, it had agreed to it in principle.
A senior Pakistani official said it had been struck under Musharraf and renewed by the army in the “transition to democracy” — a six-month period from February 2008 when Musharraf was still president, but a civilian government had been elected.
Referring to the assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, the official added: “As far as our American friends are concerned, they have just implemented the agreement.”
The former US official said the Pakistani protests lst week were the “public face” of the deal.
“We knew they would deny this stuff,” the official added.
The agreement is consistent with Pakistan’s unspoken policy toward CIA drone strikes in the tribal belt, which was revealed by the WikiLeaks US embassy cables in November last year.
In August 2008, Gilani reportedly told a US official: “I don’t care if they do it, as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the national assembly and then ignore it.”
As drone strikes have escalated in the tribal belt during the past year, officials issued pro forma denunciations even as it became clear the Pakistani military was cooperating with the covert program.
The former US official said the impetus for cooperation, much like the bin Laden deal, was driven by the US.
“It didn’t come from Musharraf’s desire. On the Predators, we made it very clear to them that if they weren’t going to prosecute these targets, we were, and there was nothing they could do to stop us taking unilateral action. We told them, over and again: ‘We’ll stop the Predators if you take these targets out yourselves,’” the official said.