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Was Pakistan tipped off to bin Laden raid?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
December 6, 2011 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
A Pakistani policeman stands guard in front of Osama bin Laden's former compound in Abbottabad on May 7, 2011.
A Pakistani policeman stands guard in front of Osama bin Laden's former compound in Abbottabad on May 7, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: The claims in a new article by Mansoor Ijaz could shake Pakistan's government
  • Ijaz wrote that he thinks Pakistan officials were tipped off by the U.S. to planned bin Laden raid
  • Frum says questions have been raised about Ijaz's credibility in previous instances
  • He says it's hard to believe U.S. would have shared plans with a government it mistrusts

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. He is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- Big events do not always have big causes. The British once went to war over an injury to a sea captain's ear. And today's Pakistan may collapse into military rule because of one man's eagerness to read his name in the newspaper and see his face on TV.

The man in question is Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American businessman who takes a special delight in political intrigue. Ijaz represents himself as a democrat, a secularist, and a friend of the West. Whatever Ijaz's personal views, nobody has done more these past weeks to undercut Pakistani democracy and poison U.S.-Pakistan relations.

This weekend, Ijaz added his most extreme provocation to date. The story is complicated, but a lot is at stake and Americans would do well to pay attention.

David Frum
David Frum

Let's start with the known facts.

In May, U.S. special forces raided Osama bin Laden's compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad and killed the terrorist leader.

U.S. officials had understood for years that the Pakistani military and intelligence services were deeply complicit in al Qaeda terrorism. Now the truth was revealed to the whole world.

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You might have expected Pakistanis to react with embarrassment to the revelation. You'd expect wrong. Pakistani media filled with nationalist fulminations against the United States -- and with rumors of military plots against Pakistan's civilian government.

Here is where Mansoor Ijaz entered the picture.

Ijaz came to view in the United States in the months after 9/11, when he told an amazing story to anyone who would listen: In the mid-1990s, when Osama bin Laden still lived in Sudan, he -- Ijaz -- had brokered a deal whereby the Sudanese would surrender bin Laden to the United States. The Clinton administration had perversely rejected the deal. This story would ultimately be repudiated as groundless by the 9/11 Commission, but at the time it gained a wide hearing on Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Ijaz himself got a contract as a Fox News analyst.

In the 2000s, Ijaz produced a series of sensational revelations, which again and again proved untrue.

(CNN's Peter Bergen has collected a useful summary of Ijaz's discredited claims and assessments. More can be read here.)

ln October 2011, Ijaz stepped forward with another amazing claim in an op-ed in the Financial Times.

"Early on May 9, a week after US Special Forces stormed the hideout of Osama bin Laden and killed him, a senior Pakistani diplomat telephoned me with an urgent request. Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, needed to communicate a message to White House national security officials that would bypass Pakistan's military and intelligence channels. The embarrassment of bin Laden being found on Pakistani soil had humiliated Mr Zardari's weak civilian government to such an extent that the president feared a military takeover was imminent. He needed an American fist on his army chief's desk to end any misguided notions of a coup -- and fast."

Fareed Zakaria interviews Mansoor Ijaz

You might wonder: Why would any "senior diplomat" in his right mind trust Mansoor Ijaz, of all people, to carry a message?

And it's not like it would be so hard for the president of Pakistan to get a secret message directly to the president of the United States: There's a large and highly capable U.S. diplomatic mission in Islamabad. Ijaz's story was bizarre on its face.

Bizarre or not, it triggered a firestorm in Pakistan. Militant nationalists accepted Ijaz's story and identified the supposed "senior Pakistani diplomat" as Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States -- a secularist and democrat who is despised by Pakistan's extremists for his modern views and outspoken style.

Pakistan's radical nationalists accused Haqqani of treason. Zardari felt he had no political choice but to recall Haqqani, who is now detained in Pakistan and forbidden to leave the country. In a country where people disliked by the military or intelligence services are often assassinated, Haqqani's life cannot be considered safe. Neither can the life of his wife, Farah Ispahani, an important activist in Zardari's political party.

All this for a story from a source of the very weakest credibility.

Yet Ijaz was not done. This weekend, he put into circulation another set of allegations, even more provocative to Pakistani radicals than the last -- and also, on their face, even more desperately implausible.

Here is Ijaz in a column in Saturday's Daily Beast:

"In my opinion, with the benefit of facts that have come to my attention in the days since my FT column appeared, Zardari and Haqqani both knew the U.S. was going to launch a stealth mission to eliminate bin Laden that would violate Pakistan's sovereignty. They may have even given advance consent after CIA operations on the ground in Pakistan pinpointed the Saudi fugitive's location. The unilateral U.S. action, they might have surmised, would result in a nation blaming its armed forces and intelligence services for culpability in harboring bin Laden for so many years. They planned to use the Pakistani public's hue and cry to force the resignations of Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and intelligence chief Gen. Shuja Pasha. Pliable replacements would have been appointed.

"If it all went wrong, the Pakistanis could unite in their hatred of America for violating their nation's sovereignty, with Zardari leading the chorus aimed at Washington. If it went to plan, the long-sought aim of putting civilians (i.e., Zardari & Co.) in charge of the Army would be complete. Washington would have bin Laden's scalp; Zardari would have Kayani's and Pasha's. And U.S. taxpayer-funded aid would flow unabated under the Kerry-Lugar bill in which Haqqani had pushed so hard to include civilian-supremacy language as a sine qua non."

It's incredible that the U.S. would have put the bin Laden mission at risk by sharing details with a Pakistani government they had ceased to trust -- even with such a personally respected representative of Pakistan as Haqqani.

Yet on that incredible supposition, Ijaz builds a conspiracy theory highly congenial to the most reactionary and anti-democratic elements in Pakistan -- and circulates the conspiracy theory at a time and in a way likely to have impact. What's he up to?

Democratic Pakistanis of a conspiratorial mindset have suggested all kinds of sinister motivations for Ijaz's actions. Perhaps those suggestions are accurate. But it's also possible that these Pakistani democrats are drawn to conspiracy theories for the same reason that their anti-democratic opposites are drawn to conspiracy theories: because conspiracy theories bring order to a world that otherwise seems crazily, frighteningly random and irrational.

After all, if the conspiracy theories about Ijaz are not correct, we are left with only two other possibilities: Either he is telling the truth -- but that possibility has to be discounted by the heavy evidence to the contrary -- or Pakistani democracy has been corroded, and the U.S. and Pakistan have been pushed toward a dangerous confrontation by a reckless fantasist motivated by childish vanity.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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