US, Pakistan and Operation Osama: Here's what might've happened

Last Updated: Tue, May 03, 2011 05:26 hrs

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, bin Laden'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 bin Laden 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 Barack Obama divulged early Monday morning that US intelligence had been busy since August tracking the lead that eventually led to bin Laden.

Last week, the US president gave this operation the thumbs-up. And early Monday (IST), in what Mr Obama suggested and US officials confirmed was an all-American strike, US special forces went in and shot dead bin Laden, one of his sons and three guards. 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 bin Laden, and whether top Pakistani leaders and officials lied through their teeth in consistently rubbishing suggestions that bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan.

Sceptics ask whether it was possible for such a well-known fugitive (even in the photograph taken after the encounter, bin Laden's bloodied face is instantly recognisable) 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 bin Laden'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 April 13 to demand that the Central Intelligence Agency (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 attempt by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to get bin Laden 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 bin Laden's presence and for planning the operation to kill him.

That actual strike, however, could never have been executed without Pakistan's 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 bin Laden'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 bin Laden 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 Mr Obama with an honourable exit from Afghanistan, leaving the field to Pakistan.

Listening to Mr 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 bin Laden'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 (to Washington, a few days) was to fine-tune the details of 'Operation Osama'.

What will bin Laden'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.

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 jihadis... Bin Laden would be shaking his head in disbelief.

And so, just as Saddam's capture did nothing to blunt the Iraqi resistance, bin Laden's killing is unlikely to diminish terrorism and militancy in the Af-Pak region.

Also See:

Nilanjana Roy: The bin Laden bookshelf

Full Coverage: The gunning down of Osama bin Laden

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