Osama’s Death: How it could affect US policy toward Pakistan &Afghanistan - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 14 Sep 2011 2 Comments

The May 2 killing by US Navy Seals of the notorious al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, at his residence next door to Pakistan’s principal military academy, PMA, in Abbottabad, may not have a direct impact on the ongoing nine-year-old US/NATO military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but it could very well change the US-Pakistan relationship for years to come and may help expedite the formulation of terms of exit for foreign troops in Afghanistan.



There is no question that US-Pakistan relations have always been transactional - i.e., the Pakistani military, carrier of Pakistan’s flag for most of its existence since 1947, performed tasks for the United States in return for cash, arms and American diplomatic support. That was the bread and butter of the relationship. Also embedded as an unstated part in the relationship was that the sovereign state of Pakistan would not encourage anti-US forces on its soil, or elsewhere.


Though that unstated part of the relationship has been violated before, the United States, the provider of cash and arms and the beneficiary of tasks performed by the Pakistani military and its intelligence, ISI, always chose to look the other way. For instance, in Afghanistan in 1996 when Osama bin Laden (stateless after carrying out repeated terrorist attacks against US institutions in Arabia and Africa) turned up, settled down with the personal blessings of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar, and trafficked heroin far and wide to buy arms for the host. Washington knew then, as it does now, that behind the rise of Mullah Omar, and his takeover of Kabul in 1996, were none other than Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two of the United States’ closest allies.


Despite this apparent incongruity, the transactional relationship between Washington and Pakistan’s military-intelligence combine continued under the pretext that Pakistan has no other institution of national power. Moreover, besides being a “good friend” from time to time, Pakistan was also the protector of the House of Saud, a key US ally. The House of Saud needed protection before, as it does now, because a significant section of the Saudi population, including some military officials, considers the royal family to be usurpers of power. In the 1980s, Pakistan had outsourced its troops to provide physical protection to the House of Saud, the oil providers to the West and elsewhere, to make sure it is not dislodged. That, too, was an unsaid part of the United States’ transactional relationship with Pakistan.


But this relationship has been endangered by what the American people came to know on the morning of May 2: the United States’ numero uno enemy, Osama bin Laden, was not hiding in some distant mountainous area beyond the reach of Pakistan’s formidable security forces; instead, he had been living for years less than a kilometer from the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), a military institution equivalent to America’s West Point, located in a virtual garrison town. Following the raid that killed bin Laden, the Pakistan military and nominal democratic government in Islamabad raised their eyebrows in apparent surprise; but it also became rather embarrassing for such US military brass as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had been meeting Pakistani Chief of the Armed Services (COAS) Gen. Ashfaq Kayani for years on a one-to-one basis. In other words, for years Kayani had been throwing dust in Mullen’s eyes, and the Americans could not figure that out. That is surely embarrassing.


A Smoke and Mirror Trick?
This close-to-a-fairy tale version of the bin Laden assassination was solemnly presented to the people by the Obama administration. But it is difficult for any rational mind to envision the execution of the mission considering the risk it involved. One of the most incredible parts of this fairy tale is that the Pentagon brass and the White House assumed that four unidentified helicopters, flying close to the ground (to avoid radar interception) for at least 150 kilometers in their inward journey to the semi-garrison town and the same distance out again afterwards in the middle of a summer night when menfolk typically sleep on rooftops, would go unnoticed in a country where breach of security is a 24-hour priority concern of the military.
Another disturbing aspect is that those in power could consider such a mission worth the risk. What could have happened if the Pakistani military had intercepted those helicopters? Would the United States Navy Seals engage themselves in a fire fight with America’s long-time ally, the Pakistan military? What would have been the consequences if all four helicopters, including their passengers, were shot down by the Pakistani Air Force, which is fully equipped to do so? What would then happen to the US-Pakistan relationship, the US campaign in Afghanistan, which involves 100,000 American troops, and the future of the Obama presidency?
If indeed Pakistan had been kept in the dark about this elaborate operation, it could have turned out to be a tactically worse mission than “the charge of the light brigade” immortalized in Tennyson’s poem by the same title. Because of its very nature, this mission was quite different from President Carter’s failed hostage rescue operation in Iran in 1979. That operation was covert; but the objective was not covert and considered “necessary” by the American population generally. US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not have such unanimous backing.
So the most obvious scenario to consider would have been the PAF decimating those four helicopters. What then would have been Washington’s explanation to the American people and to its allies around the world? What could possibly have been the explanation of what were they doing in Pakistan’s air space in the middle of the night heading toward Pakistan’s chief military academy? Would Washington then go public, explaining to the American people that the mission was designed to capture and eliminate Osama bin Laden and Pakistan came in the way? What would Islamabad do then?
It would be natural to expect that at that point Islamabad would move Osama from this safe house to another one and cut off all intelligence sharing links with the United States. And finally, the most devastating of all actions, it would also cut off the entire supply line to Afghanistan that trundles through Pakistan every day. In other words, the United States would have to have positioned itself at that point in time to go into an all-out war with a nuclear Pakistan and a formidable military based on its own turf. None of these assumptions seem plausible, unless one concludes that a mad man resides in the White House.
There is, however, a more rational analysis. It is that the whole operation, like the regular ongoing drone attacks carried out by the United States government, led by the CIA’s Special Activities Division, was well-organized and well coordinated between the Pentagon and Rawalpindi. It is public knowledge that Pakistan’s government publicly condemns the drone attacks but has secretly shared intelligence with the Americans and also allowed the drones to operate from Pakistan’s Shamsi Airfield until as late as April 21, 2011, when 150 Americans were asked to leave the airfield.
The series of contradictory statements issued by the Pakistan Air Force are noteworthy. Soon after the incident, officials of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) reported that the PAF surveillance system had been jammed by the US. Then they said Pakistani radars were switched off. A few days later, the same PAF spokesman said that the surveillance system was neither switched off nor jammed, but that it was possible that the stealth helicopters evaded the Pakistani radar system by flying close to the ground.
“The fall has been so hard that they don’t know whether to turn right or left; whether to say this or that. Which is why, with every passing day, they are making the situation ever more difficult for the country by their infantile reactions, increasingly putting the country in further danger,” says Kamran Shafi, a Pakistani political analyst.
Considering the routine protestations issued by Islamabad and Rawalpindi against regular American drone attacks, the May 2 subterfuge by both sides should not be a surprise. According to secret cables released by WikiLeaks, Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani not only tacitly agreed to the drone flights; but, in 2008, he requested Americans to increase them.
However, during a meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security April 29, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said: “Unauthorized drone missiles cause collateral damage. A few militants are killed, but the majority of victims are innocent citizens.” What Malik is saying has nothing to do with truth or reality; it is an effort on his part to make some Pakistani citizens believe that the drone attacks were unilateral acts by the US against Pakistan.
In other words, much of what takes place between the United States and Pakistan in terms of security matters and the so-called war on terror, is done with smoke and mirrors. Both countries carry out outrageous acts, some of which are then explained away to the citizens of the respective countries as surreptitious, unilateral actions by the other country. This is purely for public consumption.
The Osama killing is also a smoke-and-mirrors operation in which both parties were seemingly fully involved, and the mission was agreed on in advance. President Obama was applauded for pulling this daring act through successfully; while Islamabad was relieved that the over-the-hill terrorist, Osama bin Laden, whom it had protected for years and could not eliminate physically for fear of drawing the wrath of jihadists who function impudently even inside Pakistan’s security apparatus, was finally annihilated. Many observers expected that the elimination of Osama bin Laden might create a spike in terrorist activities for a while, but that it would bring to an end an issue that has furthered alienation between Washington and Islamabad. Osama bin Laden’s death was considered “good riddance’ by both the hunter and the protector.
Vocal Outbursts in the United States
Following the revelation that Osama bin Laden had been living under the nose of the Pakistani security apparatus, a hue and cry broke out in the United States questioning Pakistani leaders’ integrity and trustworthiness. With 100,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan across the borders from Pakistan, the Obama administration was critical yet cautious about Pakistan’s role in protecting a top anti-US terrorist and his cohorts. There were outcries from believers such as Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, who went on record saying: “The Pakistanis have played us like kazoos. They say ‘yes, yes, yes’ but mean ‘no, no, no’…We need a transactional relationship with them that is based on clear quid pro quo. The Pakistanis do not want anything more than that, and we are deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.”
Ms. Fair can rest assured that such “clear quid pro quo” is not yet even in the furthest corners of minds in either Washington or Rawalpindi/Islamabad. Soon after the raid on Osama’s “hideout” next door to the PMA, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen made yet another trip to Islamabad in an effort to patch up relations. However, the visit revealed no news regarding the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on Pakistani territory, which are widely believed to be under the protection of Pakistan’s intelligence services.
According to a report in Time magazine, CIA chief Leon Panetta (now US Secretary of Defense) was in meetings late on June 10 with Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani and his intelligence chief, Lieut. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI, regarding another incident of Pakistani double-dealing that followed the Osama killing
According to reports, Panetta shared with the Pakistani generals a 10-minute edited video showing militants evacuating two bomb factories in Waziristan. One of the factories is based in Miranshah, North Waziristan; the other is in South Waziristan. According to reports, Panetta alleged that the militants were tipped off within 24 hours of the US sharing information on the facilities with the Pakistanis. When Pakistani troops later arrived at the scene of the two facilities used for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices, the militants were gone. Time reported that the CIA believes elements within the Pakistani security apparatus had informed the militants that they would be targeted.
In article, “From Abbottabad and Worse,” published in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens said: “…Everybody knew that the Taliban was originally an instrument for Pakistani colonization of Afghanistan. Everybody knew that al-Qaeda forces were being sheltered in the Pakistani frontier town of Quetta, and that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was found hiding in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani Army. Bernard-Henri Lévy once even produced a damning time line showing that every Pakistani ‘capture’ of a wanted jihadist had occurred the week immediately preceding a vote in Congress on subventions to the government in Islamabad. But not even I was cynical enough to believe that Osama bin Laden himself would be given a villa in a Pakistani garrison town on Islamabad’s periphery…”
“The roll call of bad organizations, dangerous organizations in Pakistan is very long,” Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute told a congressional committee on May 3. “The bottom line is that Pakistan is home to probably the densest concentration of the most dangerous militant Islamist organizations in the world, and a number of those have been allowed to run fairly free within Pakistani territory for a variety of reasons.”
The double game must end, says Kagan - a key architect of the successful 2007 “surge” strategy in Iraq. And, in his view, it will require Islamabad to take three key steps. “Pakistan’s ruling elite will have to come to a consensus that supporting some militant Islamist groups as proxies, either in Afghanistan or in India, is a failing strategy,” Kagan says. “They will have to come to a consensus that all militant Islamists pose a threat to Pakistan and that none are, at the end of the day, able to be controlled by the state and used reliably and safely as proxies .... And third, and this will probably be most difficult, they will have to come to a consensus about the need to conduct what will be long, very bloody, expensive, and difficult operations against a number of these organizations that are rather deeply rooted in Pakistani society and that go beyond the FATA into the Punjab, into Sindh, into the Pakistani heartland.”
Not every US analyst agrees with Kagan, or Hitchens. There is a deep-seated fear, expressed by many analysts in Washington, that worsening US-Pakistan relations will lead to further US woes in Afghanistan. Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says that the US should remain engaged with Pakistan and should not cut off aid altogether, especially civilian assistance. She qualifies her statement by saying that military assistance should be conditioned on cooperation from Pakistan. “We simply cannot let the status quo prevail,” says Curtis, a former CIA and State Department expert on Pakistan who chaired Heritage Foundation’s independent Pakistan Policy Working Group. “We have a situation where the world’s most wanted leader was found in an area swarming with security officials, and we simply need to know what the support network looked like.”
Similar “conciliatory” voices were heard during the late-May panel discussion at the US Institute of Peace of the Institute’s Pakistan 2020 Study Group Report. Panelist Christopher Candland said: “I don’t think we will see a cutoff of US aid to Pakistan. I think even the discussion of cutting off aid to Pakistan is having a devastating impact on the Pakistani economy.”
“I think we need to be very clear about what that [aid] is and what our goals are in giving that to Pakistan,” Taha Gaya, executive director, Pakistani American Leadership Center, said at the event. “In terms of the military assistance, I think we need to continue giving security assistance to Pakistan that will allow them to enhance their capabilities to fight against exactly the same groups that are a threat to the US.”
“We should use this opportunity to try to finally split the Taliban from al-Qaeda and convince the Taliban to join a political process in Afghanistan,” Curtis said. She said it’s going to be difficult for Pakistan to rebuild trust with Washington.
At the same time, there is no question that in the United States the mood amongst lawmakers on Capitol Hill has turned almost unanimously bitter toward Pakistan. A growing number of congressional lawmakers have made clear that the way to deal with Pakistan’s obstinacy is by cutting aid or changing the way the US aid money is being spent. As Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “If the fundamental problem is indeed of one of political will in Islamabad, I am uncertain how the continued infusion of massive amounts of military assistance will change Pakistan’s tactical behavior.”
“The compound was just a stone’s throw away from the West Point of Pakistan,” complained Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. “It would be like John Dillinger living across the street from the FBI building down the street and the FBI not knowing about it.” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the relationship must change: “We know of fertilizer plants that aren’t being used to make fertilizer. They’re being used to kill our soldiers… We know that probably some of our resources are helping build their nuclear arsenal. This gives us an opportunity now to sort of rearrange that relationship.”
CNN reported on May 5 that during a Senate hearing on that day assessing the limits of US policy in Pakistan, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D- Mass, said that although he is “curious” about whether components of Pakistan’s military or intelligence services were involved in protecting the compound’s infamous resident, the US should not rush to judgment that might ultimately hurt its national security. “No matter what we learn about the events that preceded the killing of Osama bin Laden, we still have vital national security interests in this region, and we have worked hard to build a partnership with Pakistan, fragile and difficult and challenged as it may be at times,” Kerry said.
Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, said that recent events have raised questions about Pakistan’s reliability as an ally, but cautioned that it is “a strategically vital country with which we must engage.” “Distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous,” because it would weaken US intelligence capabilities, limit America’s ability to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan, and further complicate military operations in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan acts very irrational,” committee member Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said. He advocates that the United States “rearrange” its relationship with Pakistan to focus on rooting out the remnants of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups inside the country.
In early May, four House republicans — Rep. Ted Poe and John Culverson of Texas, and Van Buchanan and Allen West of Florida — introduced a bill that would block any future American financial assistance to Pakistan unless the State Department certifies that Islamabad did not know Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), want to add new restrictions on the military aid package to ensure that Pakistan uses the money and weapons in the fight against militants, rather than to further its rivalry with India or its peacekeeping missions. It has also been reported that the Obama administration officials are lobbying lawmakers not to cut the aid money to Pakistan, but they have also indicated that they would be willing to change the composition of the aid package.
Pakistan’s Response
The American lawmakers’ and population’s response to the Osama killing put both Islamabad and Rawalpindi - at least those who tacitly approved the operation, prior to it or later - on the defensive. On the surface, both Islamabad and Rawalpindi expressed a great deal of embarrassment - for “not knowing that Osama was living in the midst of the Pakistani security establishment” - and upset over “the unilateral action by the United States to carry out assassination” of the terrorist living under the shade of Pakistani security.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the Pakistan parliament that the government’s investigation of the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad would be conducted by a military commission headed by a three-star army general. Those who expected that the disgrace of the Pakistani military would lead Pakistan’s civilian government to take control of the reins and do the investigation themselves were disappointed. But it proved the point that despite the embarrassment, and what seemed at least briefly a possibility for the civilian leadership to assert itself, Pakistan military’s clout has not weakened and the civilian government still has no capability to call the shots.

Since then, the Pakistani Parliament has passed a resolution calling on the government to appoint an independent commission on the Abbottabad operation. Its mandate is to fix responsibility and recommend necessary measures to ensure such an incident does not recur. A US-based Pakistan expert, Howard B. Schaffer, wrote in his May 15 article, “Abbottabad Investigation: Don’t Hold Your Breath,” in the web magazine, South Asia Hands, that if an investigation in fact takes place, its conclusions will almost certainly be tightly held. “That’s the way things are done in Pakistan,” Schaffer noted.
“The most notorious evidence of this protective approach to military failure was the fate of the report compiled by Justice Hamidoor Rehman on the historic 1971 defeat of the Pakistan Army by Indian forces in the war that led to the breakup of united Pakistan and the establishment of independent Bangladesh. Never published, the report only came to light when it was discovered almost 30 years later by an Indian journalist,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer concluded that the heads of senior military or intelligence officers will not roll either. Pakistan does not have a tradition of public acceptance of responsibility, and the army has not engaged in the kind of “lessons-learned” exercises familiar elsewhere. What usually follows a military setback is official silence punctuated by self-exculpatory statements and creative finger-pointing by those involved, Schaffer noted. The article pointed out that the reported statement by Pakistan ISI Chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha in Parliament volunteering to resign over the intelligence failures connected with the Abbottabad operation could be an unadulterated ruse. “Given Pakistan’s military culture, it would be very surprising if such an offer were honestly made, let alone that it would be accepted,” Schaffer noted.

(To be continued…)

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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