A test for India

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

PAKISTAN ARMY CHIEF General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani (centre) at a Corps Commanders' Conferencein Rawalpindi on May 5. - HO/ISPR/AFP

PAKISTAN ARMY CHIEF General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani (centre) at a Corps Commanders' Conferencein Rawalpindi on May 5. - HO/ISPR/AFP

Osama bin Laden's killing is a boost to Pakistan's pro-democracy forces, with whom India must ally in the pursuit of a good Afghanistan settlement.

THE killing of Osama bin Laden by United States Special Forces in Abbottabad in Pakistan marks a historic watershed for the various actors involved in the long manhunt for the Al Qaeda chief. For the U.S., it is a victory of its high technology-based covert military operation, and a macho reassertion of its armed might and, more important, its reliance on military force to fight terrorism.

To the Pakistani state, it brings international disgrace and humiliation for its complicity in sheltering the world's most wanted criminal. For many Pakistanis, it represents a big political let-down by the Pakistan Army, the self-appointed guardian of the nation, and its powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). For other Pakistanis, the failure of Pakistan's armed forces to detect and intercept the helicopters involved in the raid shows up their incompetence and casts doubt on their ability to defend Pakistan's sovereignty.

For Al Qaeda, Osama's killing is a big setback, which destroys an important command centre. Although the network has evolved into a decentralised, franchise-style organisation with autonomous affiliates in different places, the head of the hard-core leadership, and its greatest source of inspiration, has been eliminated.

This will have a demoralising impact on its affiliates and also further weaken the appeal of the Al Qaeda ideology, support for which has been declining in recent years. It may impel many elements in the Taliban to rethink their links with the Al Qaeda network and their affinity for its ideology.

For the Afghanistan state, and for many Afghans, Osama's killing is an occasion for celebration. It vindicates the official assessment that Osama was in hiding not in Afghanistan or in the violent badlands on the border with Pakistan, but deep inside Pakistan. Former Afghan military intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh claims that he had credible intelligence on Osama's presence near Abbottabad as early as 2007, but the information was contemptuously dismissed by the then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Osama's killing changes the ground situation in Afghanistan and the likely prospect of the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Osama's elimination also creates a new opportunity for India to engage Pakistan in ways that strengthen the constituency in that country which favours civilian rule, and dialogue and reconciliation with India. How was Osama bin Laden tracked down and killed? There is a great deal of confusion, some arising from the shifting accounts presented by the U.S., citing the fog of war, but probably driven by attempts to embellish the achievements of SEAL (U.S. Navy's Sea, Air and Land forces), which conducted the covert operation. Contradictory claims by Pakistani officials about what intelligence Islamabad shared with the U.S., and rumours of what happened, have added to it.

However, some things are clear. U.S. intelligence officials tailed and zeroed in on a trusted courier of Osama's, identified first as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. A breakthrough came when the courier and his brother were traced to a large house with high walls in Abbottabad, a stone's throw from the Pakistan military academy.

U.S. agents put the hideout under surveillance by renting a house next door, from where they observed its residents' movements with night-vision equipment. Although they had no evidence that Osama was present, they determined that the house harboured a high-value target because of the great secrecy that surrounded it, including absence of Internet or telephone links and the systematic burning of all refuse.

U.S. agencies carefully concealed the information from the ISI, with whom they were by now in acrimonious rivalry, as evidenced, among other things, by the arrest of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor Raymond Davis after he killed two Pakistanis (probably ISI agents) in January. Davis' release in March after payment of blood money gave the U.S. agencies more room for manoeuvre.

The infelicitously named Operation Geronimo, invoking genocidal racist prejudice, was sanctioned by President Barack Obama in preference over the option of bombing Osama's hideout. It was carried out with stealth helicopters that evaded detection by Pakistani radars although they flew over a long distance, apparently from a U.S. base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Osama was unarmed and was shot in the head in cold blood. He could and should have been captured alive and tried before an international tribunal so that his guilt could be fully established. That would have provided full justice for the terrible crime of 9/11, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

But the U.S. was keen to secure another, partial, form of justice, retribution or revenge, based on the eye-for-an-eye doctrine. In the process, it lost a chance to hold Osama to account for his crimes before the international community, including millions of Muslims alienated by U.S. hegemonism, the West's demonisation of Islam, and the excesses of counterterrorism.

The U.S.' global war on terrorism has imposed a horrible price on the world through the death of 1.2 million civilians in Iraq and over 20,000 in Afghanistan, besides 6,000 U.S. military deaths and an expenditure of $1.3 trillion.

ISI's cunning

To return to Osama's targeted assassination, it is almost certain that the ISI had no inkling of U.S. plans. There are rumours that Pashto-speaking uniformed men warned people in Abbottabad around midnight of an impending military operation and asked them to turn out lights and stay indoors. Some Pakistani newspapers carried such reports, as did Indian publications. However, these have not been corroborated. On close scrutiny, they seem to be based on hearsay and speculation after the event.

Yet, such speculation is central to the hypothesis advanced by some analysts that U.S. and Pakistani agencies collaborated in tracking down and killing Osama. Pakistan no longer had any use for Osama and handed him over to the U.S. to facilitate a collusive future arrangement in Afghanistan.

Another version of the hypothesis is that the U.S. knew all along that Osama had been hiding in Abbottabad, but decided to go for him soon after Obama announced his bid for a second presidential term, and shortly before the deadline set for beginning troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, in July.

It defies credulity that the Pakistan Army and the ISI (or factions/individuals in them) did not know that Osama had found shelter in Pakistan, or were unaware of his hideout when it was so close to the Kakul military academy. The fortified house is unlikely to have escaped their attention.

Given their past record of complicity with a number of extremists, their involvement in bringing Osama into the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region in 1998, and their keenness to use the Osama manhunt as an important bargaining chip to extract $20 billion in aid from the U.S., it seems inconceivable that they did not provide some support to him.

The ISI's cunning is extraordinary as is its determination to go to any length in ensuring its own indispensability, including cheating on its collaborators, namely, U.S. secret agencies. For instance, last year, when it got to know that the U.S. wanted to talk to Mullah Baradar, a moderate Taliban, it tried to track him down in Karachi. Its own equipment was not adequate to locate him precisely. It asked for U.S. technical assistance to locate him, and promptly kidnapped him.

An agency of this kind was bound to have known about Osama's hideout. It seems extremely improbable that it tipped off the Americans. That would have been unacceptably damaging to its credibility and its ultra-nationalist image.

If the Pakistan Army/ISI had collaborated with U.S. agencies in the Osama raid, senior U.S. officers, including CIA chief Leon Panetta, would not have openly expressed their suspicions of Pakistan's clandestine involvement in hiding Osama. Nor would U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon have asked for access to three of Osama's wives from the Pakistan government. Now, a virtual war has broken out between the two agencies. The ISI has retaliated by leaking to the media the name of the local CIA station chief. And Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has accused the U.S. of having brought the mujahideen and Al Qaeda into being.

In all probability, the U.S. operation was totally unilateral and has rudely surprised the Pakistan government, provoking it to warn publicly against another breach of sovereignty on pain of a reconsideration not just of Pakistan's support for the U.S. war effort, but of the bilateral strategic political relationship (a statement made by no less a person than Army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani).

U.S.-Pakistan relations, tense for long, seem set to worsen although Washington cannot countenance dispensing with Pakistan's help in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. Its attempts to find alternative routes for arms supply into Afghanistan have only succeeded partially. And its plans to put in place a negotiated power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban before withdrawing from Afghanistan demand Pakistan's help.

Therefore, Indian analysts who indulge in wishful thinking that the U.S. will break up with Pakistan are wrong. The immediate future will see a complex game, in which the U.S. pushes Pakistan to part with information about its secret agencies' role in hiding Osama, and Pakistan resists this. Similarly, the U.S. is likely to be inclined to launch unilateral raids into north Waziristan if Pakistan baulks at collaborating with it.

The response of the Pakistani public to Osama's killing has been confused and contradictory a mixture of frustration and anger, wild conspiracy theories (60 per cent of Pakistanis reportedly believe that the man killed was not Osama), and alarm at the ISI's duplicitous role in protecting jehadi extremists while claiming to be fighting them shoulder to shoulder with the U.S.

Tarnished image

However, the Army's image has been badly tarnished. There is speculation that ISI chief Shuja Pasha will be sacked. At any rate, the civilian-military balance is shifting in favour of civilians. This strengthens the liberal constituency in Pakistan which would like the Army to be put firmly under civilian control and the ISI to be tamed.

True, this does not replicate the situation in 2007, when lawyers mobilised themselves and the public in defence of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhry and also against Musharraf and the Army. Then, the Army was openly criticised and reviled for the first time since 1971. But as today's confusion lessens, the focus in public concern will probably shift from anger against the Army/ISI for incompetence and for compromising Pakistan's sovereignty to acknowledging the havoc they have caused in Pakistan and its neighbours by sponsoring jehadi extremism. There will be a vocal demand for making them more publicly accountable.

India's position

This transition may not unfold quickly. But India should do nothing to obstruct it. Unfortunately, sections of our media launched a campaign calling for covert operations to take out Hafiz Mohammad Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim, wanted for terrorist activities in the country, or gave space to trumped-up experts who urge this to the exclusion of sober, moderate approaches.

Worse, the Army and Air Force chiefs boasted that India has covert-operations capacity. They spoke out of turn on a policy matter they are not supposed to comment on. Their plea that they were merely responding to questions will not wash. They could have refused to respond. This is of a piece with the Indian Army's recent role in sabotaging a settlement of the Siachen glacier dispute through media briefings held just when an end to the conflict seemed imminent.

The government has done well to adopt a moderate, sober, patient policy that favours continuing the dialogue with Pakistan and securing gains in improved trade and people-to-people exchanges, and solutions to discrete disputes over Sir Creek, and so on. Yet, New Delhi has not yet evolved a policy that speaks to Pakistan's moderate, pro-reconciliation, pro-civilian rule constituency and helps strengthen it. This is a major flaw and must be rectified quickly.

In the last analysis, the prospect of Pakistan's normalisation, and stabilisation of the entire South Asian region, including Afghanistan, hinges on a weakening of the Army/ISI's role in Pakistan's domestic life and removal of its veto power over policy towards India and Afghanistan, as well an end to the cat-and-mouse games Musharraf says it has played with various extremist groups. India must work for such an outcome while exploring a cooperative relationship with Pakistan in reaching a durable settlement in Afghanistan.

This must necessarily be based on diverse ethnic groups: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, besides the Pashtuns. And it must involve Iran, Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Russia, China and India, besides Pakistan and the U.S. India should press for a regional approach and dissuade the U.S. from excluding Iran, as Washington would.

This will not be easy. Both the U.S. and Pakistan remain reluctant to assign any role in any Afghan settlement to the Northern Alliance's backers India, Iran and Russia. Pakistan would be loath to dilute its claim to be the sole representative of the moderate Taliban, or to acknowledge that India has a legitimate interest in Afghanistan's stability, since the two societies have strong historical ties.

Yet, India must press this approach with the same tenacity with which it has conducted its development assistance and training programmes in Afghanistan, which have earned it great popular goodwill. India has no choice but to invest considerable diplomatic-political energy in the Af-Pak region and explore creative approaches to resolve outstanding issues, however thorny.

In the post-bin Laden world, this is a great test for India.

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