Commentary | May 05, 2011

After Bin Laden: A Pakistani View

The greatest, most expensive manhunt in history, employing human and material resources far beyond anything else in recorded times, culminated at about 3 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, 2011. With a shot to the head over the left eye, and maybe another one in the chest, Osama bin Laden’s decade-long evasion of those seeking him “dead or alive” came to an abrupt end. US president Barrack Obama, who earlier had given the definitive “kill” order and watched the whole operation by live video feed, said, “Justice has been done.” Bin Laden met his end very much like he lived – violently. Belatedly but ultimately, the US got its point across to those who harm its interests: you can run, but you cannot hide – not forever, at least.

A “hideout” less than a kilometre away from the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), Kakul was mortifying for someone who graduated nearly 46 years ago from this revered institution. In hindsight, given the utter incongruity of it, it was extremely clever for the most wanted man in the world to take deep cover literally a stone’s throw away from where Gen Kayani had only recently addressed the graduating cadets being commissioned into the army.

The isolated fortified villa was not suspicious by itself. Many such high-walled entities exist all over the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, for security reasons but also to keep prying eyes of neighbours away from the womenfolk. Allegations of such impropriety having often led to deadly fire fights, it is not surprising that neighbours tend not to be as nosy as in other areas. Given the proximity to possible Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) support further up in the mountains, Abbottabad was well chosen.

Conversely, one may ask, if there was indeed Pakistani collusion, what moron would be so stupid as to hide Bin Laden in a major garrison town, albeit one full of foreign NGOs in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake?

Four US helicopters took part in the surgical operation, lifting an elite US SEAL unit to rappel down ropes onto the roof of the compound. The fire fight lasted only a few minutes, the commandos stayed on the ground for nearly 45 minutes, collecting a virtual intelligence treasure trove of computer hard drives, a hundred or so storage discs and documents. Before picking up Bin Laden’s body and taking one captive, they carried out a quick screening of the dozen-plus people left alive, mainly women and children.

From Jalalabad in Afghanistan to the target location would have taken the raiders over (or near) three bases of the Pakistani air force, including the very active army helicopter base at Tarbela engaged in ongoing operations in Swat. Having myself flown extensively in the area as a helicopter pilot beyond Abbottabad along the Karakoram Highway (KKH), it was most surprising that the PAF radar units, fixed and mobile, failed to pick up all this aerial activity even slipping through radar blind spots, particularly at that time of the night. Obviously the radars were jammed. That does not bode well for our air defences – the frequencies were compromised.

From Jalalabad to Abbottabad and back, with 45 minutes’ hovering time at the target location, is quite an extended time for choppers to go without refuelling, even with a disposable fuel tank. Where was the “forward base” located where fuel bowsers refuelled the choppers? Somebody has to take full responsibility for this atrocious operational failure in not scrambling our fighter aircraft. Has anybody the conscience to fall on his sword?

Grudgingly acknowledging Pakistani collaboration helping the US close in eventually on Bin Laden’s hideout, the extent of “actionable intelligence,” if any, is unknown. Being kept out of the loop for “security reasons” in the actual operations is embarrassing for us as a nation. That we remained totally oblivious militarily of either Bin Laden or the operation, both smack of gross incompetence as was suggested by outgoing CIA Chief Leon Panetta.

The 9/11 atrocity against the highly symbolic “Twin Towers” and the Pentagon, the 3,000-plus US victims (including passengers in United Airlines Flight 93) left a permanent scar on the American psyche, nurturing a deep psychological yearning for revenge, ironically a very Islamic concept of “an eye for an eye.” Obama reiterated this presidential diktat to “kill or capture” the perpetrator of the 9/11 atrocity, soon after taking office. The spontaneous reaction of widespread joy on Bin Laden’s death was evident among the citizens thronging the streets across the US at midnight, congregating symbolically at “Ground Zero” in New York and outside the White House in Washington DC. Maybe not for crass political reasons (the presidential stakes were high for Obama if anything went wrong) but for psychological ones. It was important that the finger on the trigger be American. A rambling Osama bin Laden in the dock would have been a symbolic living martyr fomenting more terrorism.

The calculated risk in the human element notwithstanding, a physical operation was the pragmatic choice, rather than a missile attack. That revenge was derived ultimately by US hands satisfied its ecstatic citizens, even the most diehard Republicans weighed in to praise the Democrat president, the one they had only just been labelling as “weak and indecisive.”

A very significant vocal minority in Pakistan remains enamoured by Bin Laden despite his brutal excesses. The US said that for reasons of operational secrecy, Pakistani participation was not feasible. Certainly, no one would have trusted anyone in the civilian government about the impending operations; might as well announce it on CNN or the BBC! But the fact that the American chose also to keep the military hierarchy in the dark shows a lack of respect for our tremendous sacrifices. By far, most Pakistani citizens (5,000-plus military and over 30,000 civilian ones, making for roughly 10 times the number of American losses) have died in this war. However, highlighting Pakistani involvement would have force-multiplied terrorist retaliation in the heartland. It probably made good political sense to let Americans take credit for dealing with this “hot potato.”

One may not agree with what all the ISI does or with its motives and methods, but it still happens to be one of the prime institutions protecting the country’s core interests. We have to support firmly the soldiers dying every day in counterinsurgency operations, notwithstanding the many times more collateral civilian damage suffered by those killed in the streets and mosques. There will be extraordinary pressure within the US to exit Afghanistan now that Bin Laden is dead, a long struggle against terrorism looms ahead of us and we need the US, and they do need us. Bin Laden, alive or dead, does not matter. The fight is far from over!

Pakistan’s detractors are having a field day, converting conjuncture into fact. Scurrilous speculations are being bandied about regarding our intelligence agencies. The data collected from Abbottabad by the raiding party as well as the captives’ interrogation report assumes great importance. For Pakistan’s future as a credible entity in the comity of nations, the real truth, whatever it may be, must come out. Anybody cooperating with terrorists needs a short shrift. On the other hand, the US has all the evidence to either clear or indict “Pakistani collaboration,” official or unofficial. The blunt message to our US allies must be unequivocal: put up or shut up!

Click here to read Sehgal's piece in The News