Images of the house outside Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces on Monday, 2nd May 11
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd May 11
After years of not knowing whether Osama bin Laden was alive or dead, he was briefly resurrected through the announcement of his killing in a US Special Forces operation near Abbottabad, Pakistan. For me, Osama’s death feels strangely personal. I moved into his house in Kabul just a couple of days after he vacated it in November 2001. Soon afterwards, at the cave complex of Tora Bora near Jalalabad, I was amongst the journalists who watched from about a kilometre away as US Air Force B-52 bombers pulverised the cave mouths. And then, one morning, we learned that Osama and his inner coterie had escaped the previous evening, a small group trekking across the Safed Koh mountain range into the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.
And it was there, almost a decade later, in what Pakistan now calls Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that America’s long arm caught up with bin Laden. President Obama divulged today that US intelligence had been busy since August tracking the lead that eventually led to Osama. Last week, the US president gave this operation the thumbs-up. Early this morning, in what Obama suggested and US officials confirmed was an all-American strike, Special Forces went in and shot dead Osama, one of his sons, three guards, and another mysterious woman hostage. Six other sons and three wives were arrested.
This has raised, especially in India, a clamour of questions about whether Pakistani security agencies housed and protected Osama, and whether top Pakistani leaders and officials lied through their teeth in consistently rubbishing suggestions that Osama was hiding in Pakistan. Sceptics ask whether it was possible for such a well-known fugitive to hide without official collaboration in Pakistan’s heartland at the doorstep of its officer training school --- the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul --- just a kilometre away.
Besides these inconvenient questions, Islamabad is caught in another cleft stick. Accepting Pakistani involvement in Osama’s death would invite criticism from the right wing (which would include a large majority of all Pakistanis!) for partnering the hated Yankees in killing the admired Sheikh Osama. Denying involvement, on the other hand, would make everyone ask how US forces can operate deep inside Pakistan without the government knowing or being able to stop them.
Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, has issued an ambiguous statement that mutters about a “joint operation” but does not elaborate on the role that the Pakistani establishment played. It was widely reported that Pasha visited the US on 13th April to demand that the CIA cut down its operations inside Pakistan. Given that this request came just as US intelligence was closing the noose around bin Laden, sceptics wonder whether this was a last ditch ISI attempt to get Osama out of the trap that he was in.
The truth will not remain hidden forever, but some educated guesswork is already possible. America is hardly likely to have shared its August tip-off with Pakistani intelligence, given what it knows about the ISI’s enduring links with terrorist organisations and the consequent danger of tipping off bin Laden. Instead, US intelligence would have called upon its technical resources --- satellite surveillance and communications monitoring --- and also physical surveillance with highly paid informants, to confirm Osama’s presence and for planning the operation to kill him.
That actual strike, however, could never have been executed without Pakistani knowledge and, at least, acquiescence. Given that at least three US helicopters were used in the operation, flying through airspace that is carefully guarded by the Pakistani air defence network (the Kahuta nuclear establishment is close by) the complicity of the Pakistani air defence agencies was essential. It is this that General Pasha probably refers to in calling Osama’s killing a joint operation.
From the American viewpoint, Pakistan’s role in any such operation would be circumscribed by the lessons of Tora Bora. At the cave complex in 2001, Afghan militias closing in on Osama struck a deal with him, allowing him to escape into Pakistan just ahead of the handful of British and American special force operatives that were close behind. This time round, the US forces would have guarded against such a possibility by keeping Pakistani forces at a distance.
In evaluating Pakistani motives and actions, New Delhi must consider another possibility: that Islamabad and Rawalpindi decided to sacrifice bin Laden to the Americans to provide Obama with an honourable exit from Afghanistan, leaving the field to Pakistan. Listening to Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death, I was struck by how much it sounded like the first speech of his re-election campaign and its resemblance to a victory speech. It might well be that Osama’s killing could hasten the US drawdown from Afghanistan. If this conspiracy theory holds water, General Pasha’s demand in April to pare down the CIA presence in Pakistan was only the cover; perhaps his visit was to fine-tune the details of “Operation Osama”.
What will Osama’s killing do for the war on terror? Nothing really. The amorphous ideology of radical Islam and its evolving operational structures adapt quickly to leadership vacuums. Osama bin Laden became operationally irrelevant during his years in hiding; if he were to enter the field today, he would hardly know how to handle the complex interplay between the multiple actors in the anti-western array: the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Punjabi jehadis… Osama would be shaking his head in disbelief. And so, just as Saddam’s capture did nothing to blunt the Iraqi resistance, Osama’s killing is unlikely to diminish terrorism and militancy in the AfPak region.