Osama bin Laden is dead, killed in a fire-fight with US Special Forces during an extraction operation in Abbottabad, just a few kilometres from the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. His death and where he died raise many questions. Consider.
Is this the beginning of the end of al Qaeda, the organisation of which he was the primary leader and which declared war on the United States and its allies? The answer is no, even factoring in that bin Laden’s death does represent a huge symbolic setback for his movement.
His strategy, i.e., that of al Qaeda’s, was essentially political. He did not aim to negotiate with the West; he wanted to exploit the fault-line within the Islamic world. His political weapon was the people and groups within the Islamic world who he expected would rise up and topple the corrupt governments in the Muslim world.
His military strategy — draw the West into a conflict through spectacular attacks on its interests — thus had a broader political aim. This is why it was not geared towards acts of controlled violence. He was primarily addressing the Muslims, not America. He wanted the West to attack with all the viciousness at its disposal. The greater the destruction, the better for forcing people in the Muslim world to rise and decide which side they were/are on. This could only be achieved through a sharpening of the internal conflict, the reasons for which transcend bin Laden but the existence of which he employed brilliantly to his own end.
This has happened, and is happening. The fault line is deepening both because of internal, structural problems within the Muslim states as well as because of US policies and the alliance of these governments with Washington. Pakistan is a very good example of this trend, though it is not the only one. Ideologically, al Qaeda’s core is linked to the outer ring of groups across the Muslim world to which it can outsource operations as well as with the outermost ring that comprises those who are religiously motivated, angry with US policies, angry with governments that are allied with the US or all of the above.
This gives to al Qaeda a protean character which translates into remarkable adaptability. It has been outsourcing operations, indulging in psy-ops and has been fairly successful in plugging into local grievances or other conditions that help it survive and strike. This gives the organisation, more a mindset now, a high degree of operational flexibility. To that extent, while bin Laden’s killing is a big tactical victory, it does not necessarily translate into a strategic win for the US.
The details have still to emerge but it does not seem that bin Laden was operationally active or even effective. In fact, his death could give al Qaeda yet another cause to gain momentum. The organisation and its affiliated groups are in no hurry and see very clearly that the US actions are advancing their interests. The primary strategy is to increase the direct and indirect costs for America. Unless the US begins to address the causes which have created the al Qaeda effect, and governments in the Muslim world begin to deliver to their peoples, the problem will not go away.
In the short term, however, the place where he was found and killed is an issue that will create more problems for Pakistan. It does not seem, from information available at this point, that his spoor was picked up by Pakistani intelligence. Neither does it appear that initial information was matured in cooperation with Pakistan. More likely, all these developments were kept highly secret from Islamabad, which makes sense, given the distrust between Pakistan and the US.
And if it is accepted that from the first lead to maturing intelligence on bin Laden, to the final authorisation of operation the US was in the driver’s seat, then we must also concede that Washington now has a major advantage over Islamabad and, more appropriately, on the Pakistani military. Since the Raymond Davis affair there was much talk of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate trying to put the Central Intelligence Agency on the back foot. This development will serve to stump the ISI and it will be difficult for the latter to object to a heavy CIA footprint inside Pakistan.
It is a measure of the pressure Pakistan would have faced for it to have agreed to a direct operation by the US Special Forces rather than insisting that it be conducted jointly. Not only that, it seems the Obama administration made plain to Islamabad that the latter will take no credit for the operation and will not even break the news on it. This could only be possible if all the heavy lifting was done by the US, which then presented Pakistan with irrefutable evidence on bin Laden’s presence just kilometres away from Abbottabad cantonment.
Given the distrust, it is highly likely that Pakistan was brought into the loop at the very last minute, perhaps to provide troops to cordon off the area, though some reports suggest that even that might not have been the case.
Be that as it may, and details will trickle forth in the days to come, the development means there will be immense pressure on Pakistan on all counts: Falling in line with the US strategy in Afghanistan; keeping US troops and technical equipment on Pakistani soil; a heavier US intelligence footprint.
Pressure has already been ratcheted up by top US officials on Pakistan’s alleged support for some Afghan Taliban groups. We can expect more verbal dressing down on that count. There will now also be tremendous pressure on Pakistan to go into North Waziristan. These pressures are not new; what is new is the drastic reduction of space for Pakistan to counter them. That would be the primary concern for Pakistan. The development has left Islamabad, more specifically the military, holding a very poor set of cards.
Questions are already being raised about the conduct of the operation. Former General-President Pervez Musharraf has argued that the operation should have been conducted by Pakistani Special Forces. But these questions ignore the basic point: Why would the US let Pakistan do the operation if Islamabad did not even know that bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad and the target was picked up and matured by the US? Not only that, as would be obvious in the days to come, many analysts in the US would argue that America did not share the intelligence with Pakistan because it feared that some people within the Pakistani intelligence would have tipped off bin Laden.
The days to come will see some of this unfold.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2011.