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Osama Bin Landen’s Killing: Questions And Strategic Implications – Analysis


By Rajeev Sharma

Several questions arise in the killing of Al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden in the wee hours of May 2, 2011. These questions are food for strategic thought and can have long term policy implications for India, for the region and the world.

First, was there a deal between the Pakistani military establishment and the Obama administration as a result of which bin Laden, the most wanted man on earth with a reward of $ 25 million on his head for close to a decade, fell in Americans’ lap like a ripe apple? Second, if the answer to the first question is in affirmative, then what is the quid pro quo which Islamabad bargained with the Americans? Third, why bin Laden was shot dead (presumably from close range) and not captured alive and put on trial like Saddam Hussein was? This question assumes importance in view of the fact that the American Special Forces are equipped with such laser-guided stunners that can pulverize the target for six to eight hours and not kill him.

The killing of bin Laden just 56 kms north of Islamabad also paints a glowing picture of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan Army which governs the ISI. Now it is clear that while the American Drones were marauding Pakistan’s tribal areas for years, bin Laden was in the safekeeping of Pakistani military establishment in the heart of urban Pakistan. And the top brass of Pakistan Army and the ISI was able to dodge the mighty superpower for close to a decade and pull wool over the eyes of the world! This speaks volumes of the abilities and capabilities of the Pakistani military establishment that any foreign power, including India, will ignore or underestimate at its own risk.

Speculations about the Pakistan-US “deal’ over bin Laden assume importance in view of the fact that ISI Chief visited the US last month and had intense discussions with his American interlocutors. Clearly, bin Laden was no Saddam and allowing him to be captured alive would have meant that he could spill the beans how he was protected by the Pakistani establishment for almost a decade and therefore he had to die. The Pakistan Army can do the same thing with regard to two more high value targets for the Americans: Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Implications for India

Answer to the question whether there was a “deal” between Washington and Islamabad behind bin Laden’s killing in the heart of Pakistan will be manifest in coming months by how their bilateral relations unfold. The common perception post-Osama killing is that the distrust between the US and Pakistan is complete and their relations are likely to be severely strained. However, if that does not happen and the two countries embark on yet another honeymoon period in their bilateral ties, it would be indicative of something fishy.

The unseemly hurry in shooting him in the head from close range and then promptly burying him (that too in the Northern Arabian Sea bed!) may be a far cry from the song and dance the Americans made of another sworn enemy of theirs, Saddam Hussein. It suggests that the Americans don’t want to rock Pakistan’s boat any further. President Obama has no reasons to get after Pakistan on the issue of terrorism as he has got the biggest prize of his presidency at a time when he has just started his re-election campaign.

Then there are at least two parameters to judge the closeness or chill in US-Pakistan relations both of which are India-centric. First, will the US continue to consider Pakistan as the bad boy after such a humongous victory in the war against terror or will it shower goodies on Pakistan like F 16s and even Drones and resume liberal annual aid worth billions of dollars to Pakistan? Second, will the Americans quietly accede to another strategic demand of Pakistan: the ouster of India from Afghanistan? India has one embassy and four consulates in Afghanistan. The US is the only other country in the world where India is maintaining five diplomatic missions and that sums up the strategic significance of Afghanistan for India. That is why India has spent $ 1.3 billion in Afghanistan thus far and much more than this is in the pipeline.

If these two things happen in near future, the quid pro quo will be established and suspicion of a US-Pakistan deal will gain further currency.

Implications for Terrorism

Another important question that the international community is faced with after bin Laden’s death is how it will impact on jihadist terror? Whether terrorism will die out or whether it will be exacerbated?

The death of bin Laden is certainly a setback to the jihadist forces. But it is not going to be the end of the road for al Qaida in particular and jihadists in general. There are three potent reasons for this. One, the chief of al Qaida (which tellingly means “The Base” in Arabic) had been lying low for years, despite his off and on messages through audio and video tapes. This may be for two reasons: his physical condition and his possible incapacitation due to his well-known kidney ailment that required him to take dialysis treatment frequently; and the constant degradation in al Qaida’s strike capabilities. In fact, bin Laden found it increasingly difficult to send out his messages to the world through his favourite method of video and audio tapes. Of late, he relied only on audio tapes. The degradation in al Qaida’s capabilities was starkly clear when the outfit failed to send its customary message on 9/11 anniversary last year and had to make amends by releasing an audio tape in January 2011.

Two, the marked erosion in al Qaida’s rank and file had substantially weakened the terror outfit – something which is borne out by the fact that bin Laden could never have a repeat performance of 9/11 on the American mainland for past almost ten years despite his repeated threats. Three, probably bin Laden and his co-strategists in al Qaida had seen the writing on the wall years ago and had accordingly changed strategy by changing the command, control and operational structure of al Qaida.

Today, the al Qaida is not what it was a decade ago. Bin Laden had rewritten the rules of global terrorism. Till his arrival in Afghanistan in 1996, the common practice was non-state actors getting funding and logistical support from a state. Bin Laden reversed the trend of terrorism being state sponsored. During the five-year-long Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996-2001), here was an individual who sponsored a state (Afghanistan) as the Taliban government functioned with his money and protection. After suffering heavy attrition from American and allied forces in the wake of a military operation almost a month after 9/11, the al Qaida started changing its character and modus operandi. It was no longer a monolithic outfit. It evolved, changed and completely transformed into a pot pourri of several terror outfits, each drawing inspiration from and owing ideological allegiance to the al Qaida. That is how one explains the birth of several al Qaidas like Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaida in Maghreb (AQIM).

It is because of the decentralization, diversification and multiplication of al Qaida that it has become a monster that cannot be killed or defeated with the killing of its topmost leader, even if that leader is of the stature of bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man who carried a reward of $ 25 million on his head. The bin Laden legend will continue to live for years and decades among the jihadists the world over whose photos will adorn key chains, cigarette lighters and individual homes.

Another important point in the bin Laden saga is the role of Pakistan. For almost a decade, Pakistani rulers had been crying themselves hoarse in denying bin Laden’s existence in Pakistan. The then military dictator of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf had given several contradictory statements. In one such statement he said bin Laden is not in Pakistan. In another he claimed that bin Laden was dead already. The fact that bin Laden was killed in an American surgical strike by select elite commandos just 56 kilometers north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad shows the complicity of the top brass of Pakistani military and intelligence who obviously used bin Laden as a trump card to deal with the US even though he was in the heart of Pakistan, away from the Drones-battered tribal areas. It is impossible for the movers and shakers of Pakistani military establishment to have not known the fact that bin Laden was hiding close to the national capital. It also strengthens the suspicion that other top guns like Ayaman al- Zawahiri and Mullah Omar may also be hiding in Pakistani cities.

The Americans have conducted anti-terrorism operations in Pakistan thrice before: twice in 2002 in Faislabad and Karachi to capture Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh respectively and once in 2003 in Rawalpindi to arrest Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. But the Abbottabad operation was the first operation wherein the Pakistanis were not involved, not even informed, and were told about it only after the operation was over and the American helicopters had left Pakistani airspace.

The killing of bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan is extremely embarrassing for a nation that is probably no longer aware of the term ‘embarrassment’. Inevitably, even in the face of this mother of all embarrassments, Pakistani political leaders, top military officials and so-called “patriotic” commentators will try to wriggle out of the situation as indeed the voices emanating from Pakistan suggest. One Pakistani journalist has gone on record telling an Indian television channel that there was no way that the Pakistani military could have been in the know of bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. Indeed such obfuscation campaign has already started. The Pakistani journalist mentioned above argued that if the Pakistani military were in cahoots with bin Laden, he would have been kept in a safe house under the guard of Pakistani forces. But wasn’t the sprawling mansion in Abbottabad with 18 feet high walls sans telephones and Internet and just 700 yards away from Pakistan Military Academy a safe house?

The Pakistani government has been in a state of constant denial about bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, not unlike their denials about the presence of “global terrorist” Dawood Ibrahim in Pakistan. Now it is up to the international community to decide how it will deal with Pakistan, now a proven global superpower in IT. No, IT does not mean Information Technology here. In the context of Pakistan, it means International Terrorism. The question is if the international community does not confront Pakistan and call its bluff, when will it ever do?

The moral of the story is simple. Osama bin Laden is dead. Long live terrorism. This may sound inappropriate at this time of historic victory in the global war against terrorism, but it is true.

(The writer is the author of a book on Osama bin Laden, titled “Pak Proxy War: A Story of ISI, Bin Laden and Kargil,” published in 1999 by Kaveri Books, Daryaganj. He can be reached at [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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