Unless he manages an economic miracle, the assassination of Osama bin Laden will be the biggest achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency. If there was doubt on that score, Mark Bowden’s book – released just ahead of the Presidential re-election — will set them at rest. He squarely credits Obama with not only reviving the hunt for bin Laden but taking the politically risky decision to send a special ops team to take him down. Neither the racily readable No Easy Day, an account of the raid by a leader of the SEAL team, nor Katherine Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty are quite as unequivocal on this point.
These differing views are hardly surprising. Like many in America’s armed forces, “Mark Owen” (later identified as Matt Bissonnette, the author of No Easy Day) is no fan of Obama because of his pacific pronouncements during the first presidential race. Admittedly his book, toughly heroic in tone, provides an invaluable, first-hand account of the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on the night of May 2, filling the interstices in Nicholas Schmidle’s outstanding first reconstruction in the New Yorker in August 2011.
Bissonnette, an Iraq and Af-Pak veteran, suggests that the search for America’s most wanted terrorist had never let up since 9/11 but the intelligence was never good enough. He, too, had been on an abortive mission in the Tora Bora mountains, the range straddling the Af-Pak border in 2007 (from where bin Laden had escaped in 2001) after a tall man in flowing white robes was spotted in the area. Thereafter, “flowing white robes” became a SEAL in-joke for a bad mission.
Bowden is a thoughtful commentator on the projection of American power abroad, as anyone who read Black Hawk Down, his account of a botched mission in Somalia, can attest. He has taken a less sexy approach by setting his narrative within the domestic and global political contexts. So toned special ops braves are only part of the story and an obsessed female CIA agent celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty is not (Bissonnette’s account refers to a CIA agent called “Jen” who had been following bin Laden’s trail for nine years and accompanies the raiders to the forward operating base).
But Bowden’s story is no less gripping because he fleshes out the events and characters after extensive on- and off-record interviews and careful research (all vitiated by the lack of an index). His account suggests that the bin Laden trail had grown cold during the Bush era because of the pre-occupation with the Iraq war. Resurrecting the hunt was as much a matter of priorities as outlook. “Obama had long been critical of Bush’s War on Terror’. The way he saw it, America was not at war with something amorphous, like a concept or a tactic. It was at war with a specific individual who had attacked the country and continued to threaten it. When he took office in 2009, Al Qaeda and its affiliate organisations remained the first clear and present danger… ,” he writes. There was no way to defeat it as long as its “charismatically evil” founder remained at large.
It was Obama’s decision to bump up the priority in finding bin Laden (and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian deputy, still at large at the time of writing) that proved the game changer. It began with an unscheduled huddle in the Oval office in May 2009 when Obama closely questioned his top national security aides on the state of play in the hunt for bin Laden and demanded regular briefing reports.
A little over a year later came information about one Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a trusted bin Laden courier, and his comings and goings from a compound in Abbottabad, 118 km from Islamabad and home to one of Pakistan’s defence academies. Al-Kuwaiti’s name was not new to intelligence agencies — captured Al Qaeda operatives had mentioned him. And, yes, some of those operatives were tortured, a technique that was explicitly highlighted in Zero Dark Thirty. Though Bowden does not endorse torture (Bigelow claims she doesn’t either), he confirms that it was used at one time. But it was not the sole source or major source of intel either.
The leads coalesced into slender evidence. Satellite surveillance revealed a tall, bearded man who emerged for a daily constitutional in the compound at a set time. They called him The Pacer. Was he bin Laden or a Saudi sheikh escaping a personal vendetta? The conspicuous secrecy strengthened suspicions. The windows had reflective film; only al-Kuwaiti and his brother came and went; phone calls were made after driving some distance – and one intercept had him telling someone he was working “with the same ones as before”; the children only emerged for visits to the doctor; all trash was burned inside.
Amazingly, the sophisticated skills and tools at Obama’s disposal could not yield better confirmation. Attempts to convert the “maybe” into a certainty extended to such operations as paying a Pakistani doctor to offer an inoculation clinic in the area to obtain DNA samples from the children in the compound. To no avail. The level of certainty never crossed 50 per cent; it all boiled down to perceptions.
Obama mulled the options his advisors put before him — a drone hit or special ops raid. He veered towards the latter because it would minimise the risk of collateral damage (not to forget embarrassment if the drone killed someone else). It was a courageous decision because history was not on his side; the disastrous special ops mission to free US hostages in Iran in the seventies cost Carter his second term, as failure would cost Obama his.
There was also the delicate matter of invading an ally’s territory. Bowden points to a widely criticised statement by Obama in the run-up to his first term: that US should not rule out invading Pakistan or cutting aid if it believed its leadership was not doing enough to contain terrorists. So his actions had the virtue of consistency, plus the nod-and-wink agreement for the Pakistan armed forces to look the other way to US special ops along the north-west frontier.
The famous photo of the top American leadership staring intently at footage of the raid (reproduced here) suggests that everyone was on board with the decision. But vice- president Joe Biden and then Defence Secretary Robert Gates demurred. Gates changed his mind the next morning after he reviewed the evidence, by which time Obama had pronounced those famous words: “It’s a go”.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Bowden’s rounded story still leaves unanswered questions. Reviewing No Easy Day for the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll asks: was this a capture or kill mission? He bases his doubt on the fact that Obama was closely aligned with predator strikes to kill other Al Qaeda leaders. Bin Laden had taken a bullet to one eye and was already down, alive but unarmed when the SEALs burst in. Why did they pump bullets into him after that? Bissionnette says their orders were to capture bin Laden alive but cannot explain the SEALs’ actions. Bowden speculates that the SEALs had decided among themselves to make it a kill mission.
As for Pakistan, what did the establishment know and not know? Only an unexpected tell-all memoir from a Pakistani/ISI general can fully answer that mystery.
THE KILLING OF OSAMA BIN LADEN
Author: Mark Bowden
Price: Rs 450