OBL: Pakistani military stumped

Published: May 3, 2011
The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme

The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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.


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Reader Comments (12)

  • Indian
    May 3, 2011 - 6:17PM

    There is no way we can belive that ISI and Pak establishment which include military does not have any information on Obama… we pakistani should ask question – if this is true than Allaah only can save usRecommend

  • Ravindra
    May 3, 2011 - 7:21PM

    scene pakistani army men carrying remains of crashed helecopter in trucks and tractors was very embarassing.
    even as indian i feel very bad for pakistan.
    alla plz save pakistan.Recommend

  • Mirza
    May 3, 2011 - 7:36PM

    Now people can understand why did mullah oppose the presence of Americans like Ray Davis in Pakistan? We had so many skeletons in our closets! Too bad finally Americans uncovered the truth. Poetic justice, isn’t it?Recommend

  • hamza khan
    May 3, 2011 - 7:38PM

    this nonsense that the indians and western media people continue to throw around of our intel providing bin laden, the same man who has declared war against the state, had his deputies kill several thousand pakistanis some sort of protection is such utter rubbish that its hard to believe that a rational mind can even fathom it. not only has pakistan caught perhaps the most important al-qaeda commanders (al-libbi, KSM, and recently umar pateek) but it has continued to fight arabs and chechen al-qaeda members in the mountains. but somehow, the figurehead is on our side so we’ll protect him. great logic. Recommend

  • vikas
    May 3, 2011 - 9:15PM

    well its a hard time for pakistan, and its true (i think) that pak govt. was providing shelter to obl.
    but after all he is dead now, and its could be the best time for pak to throw out all the militants from its soil and focus on development and education.Recommend

  • Ahmed
    May 3, 2011 - 9:18PM

    Where are the bodies of all who were killed in this operation? In understand osama’s is some where in the sea, where are others?Recommend

  • mind control
    May 3, 2011 - 9:29PM

    @Ejaz Haider

    I am reminded of an analysis which says that every once in a while the Pakistani establishment (Army&Intelligence+Civil Bureaucracy+Religious and Rightist Parties) are hit by hubris. They start believing that they have hit upon the surefire formula of success.

    It happened in 1965,the hubris made them believe that with Pattons in the mechanised divisions and Americans at their back and Indian demoralised after 1962 and one Ghazi being the better of 10 banias, they had the winning formula. Alas, the bluff got called in 14 days flat.

    It was repeated in 1971. Having put US and China in bed together, they believed that both of them will be eager to show their gratitude by ripping India apart. Again it turned out to be a pipedream.

    With Obama’s receding popularity and his commitment to exit Afghanistan and with Karzai’s overtures to save his skin and pelf, and with Haqqani forces largely unmolested, the establishment felt that it was winning again. This prompted them to first enact the Davis drama and then repeated hits on the NATO convoys, wooing of Karzai thumbing their collective noses at the Americans,and demands of getting CIA operatives lists. And finally the Khan Dharna attended by all unsavoury characters.

    In one stroke the US has called the bluff of the establishment and exposed them to the world at large and suddenly even Karzai is singing a different tune. Hope the hubris is over and action against the real enemies, Hafiz Saeed included, will follow.Recommend

  • Maddog Qadafhi
    May 3, 2011 - 9:38PM

    @hamza khan

    “but somehow, the figurehead is on our side so we’ll protect him. great logic.”

    And yet many pakistanis are mourning Bin Laden’s passing in Quetta and elsewhere.Recommend

  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 4, 2011 - 2:09AM

    Former General Musharaff’s comments should be ignored — as well as those of Haid Gul which will surely appear. Recommend

  • Nobody
    May 4, 2011 - 3:08AM

    Thank you. The Pakistani officials (those higher ups who knew he was hiding in Pak) have brought shame to the nation, and it’s high time something be done about the dark pit these people are leading the country into. I’m disgusted by the deceit and my heart goes out to those who will suffer as a result of it. As always, the citizen’s of Pakistan will suffer the consequences of Pakistan’s corrupt higher ups’ actions and bear the brunt of what’s to come as a result of this. Recommend

  • RK
    May 4, 2011 - 9:49AM

    @mind control:

    Very well said. People of pakistan always liked to beleive their military and ISI are holi cow and honest establishments. Little theu know these are cowards and friends to terrorists and not to the people. But still Pakistans people will not understand the truth, will still like to believe what they like to beleive, which is theirs is nation of honest islam and good natured people and only hindus and jews create all problems they see in their country.
    I saw an interview by BBC to the yound daughter of a Christian MP, who was killed by his own guard. The way she answere the queries were just unbelievevable. I mean this young population of Pakistan has been brain washed by the media and their education system. He actually supported the killer in a indirect way. This nation has simply no future. Recommend

  • G. Din
    May 4, 2011 - 5:20PM

    “we pakistani should ask question – if this is true than Allaah only can save us.”
    Hello, Impostor!Recommend

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