PESHAWAR: A nightmare that Pakistan’s security establishment dreaded for years has finally happened.
The “what if” question — if Osama bin Laden was killed or captured in Pakistan – continued to haunt the key US ally in the war on terror of many, many years. To quote a now-retired senior intelligence official, “The mere thought of Bin Laden having been killed or captured in Pakistan gives me nightmares.”
The death of the most wanted man in the world could not have come at a worse time for Pakistan. Instead of resolving many of the issues surrounding his mysterious escape from Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and his whereabouts thereafter, his death has spawned many more questions. What happens next? Both for Al Qaeda and Pakistan??
Osama’s dramatic end is a significant psychological blow to his Jihadist platform that has since given birth to a stew of several more Jihadist organisations. As Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor of the British-Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabia, once noted: Before 9/11, Al Qaeda had just one address; its mountainous hideout in Tora Bora. Now it has many addresses. The Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Al Qaeda in Yemen, the Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, the Al Qaeda in Maghreb and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, not to mention its several other affiliates spread across the globe, many in the sleeper cells in the US and Europe.
Indeed, the shy and seemingly introvert Osama remained an inspiration figure for the Jihadists throughout the world, bringing in fighters from virtually everywhere to fight the war in Afghanistan and other Islamic conflict zones.
But his utility for Al Qaeda stops there. In the present scheme of things, he had chosen to lie low, away from the battlefield, leaving the overall operational command to his deputy, the Egyptian doctor — Ayman Al Zawahiri. It is, by all accounts, Zawahiri, who is doing most of the leg work for Al Qaeda and galvanising support for it. Therefore, what was de facto until Sunday may become de jure with Dr Zawahiri succeeding his leader to take control of Al Qaeda.
For Pakistan the implications are two-fold: On the internal front, a threat from Al Qaeda and Taliban to avenge Osama’s death now looms large and the duo has shown its capacity in the past to cause havoc in the country. This will pose a formidable challenge to the government and the security and military apparatus,
But what the more daunting and challenging task before Pakistan would be to cope with what may now become a more assertive United States.
The opportunity provided to Islamabad by the arrest of US spy Raymond Davis to convince the Americans to reduce CIA’s footprints, cut down if not entirely shut down drone operations and an overall cut of 25 to 40 per cent in its Special Operations forces and other personnel now seems to be standing on its head.
It is a strange twist of luck for Pakistan which had declined a US offer of the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) with Islamabad a few years ago, finding it to be “too intrusive”. The Sofa that was scrutinised by the Joint Chief of Staff Committee was found to be too intrusive for Pakistan’s comfort. But when the ISI chief, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, went to Washington last month to offer its version of the Sofa, he found the Americans least interested.
If Bin Laden’s presence in a major urban centre and that too close to a prestigious military training institution could be any pointer, it might as well prompt the US to ask for more intrusive surveillance of our territory, including the urban areas and not just the rugged tribal backyards.
Indeed, most of Al Qaeda’s so-called high value targets were captured from Pakistan major urban cities. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad from Rawalpindi, Ramzi Binalshibh from Karachi and Laith al Libi from Mardan. Also captured from Abbottabad last month was the Indonesian Umar Patek, implicated in the Bali bombings.
Therefore, if Islamabad is in a state of shock and embarrassment, it is understandable. It may not only be wanting on giving plausible explanations of its inability to track down Bin Laden in Abbottabad not just to an already-suspicious Obama administration but also to its nation who would want to know how the Americans managed to fly helicopters all the way from Afghanistan (if it is to be believed) undetected in the military parlance ‘nap of the earth flying” by our radars to carry out a raid and go back just like that, when the stated policy is that no foreign forces would be allowed to carry out land operation in Pakistan – unless of course there was some knowledge of the operation at some level at the top.