By Dev Nadkarni
The West’s relief at the one news headline that eluded the world for more than a decade after 9/11 was palpable: as leaders expressed jubilation at President Barack Obama’s successful Operation Geronimo, people spontaneously broke into late night celebrations at Ground Zero in New York and outside the White House in Washington DC. The one, single news headline that had eluded the world for more than a decade after 9/11 was finally flashing across the globe.
Indian leaders, however, were less celebratory in their tone about the elimination of bin Laden per se. For them for them it was all about location, location, location – they were more concerned with making the point about where the action had taken place.
Ever since the West’s so called war against terror began in the months after 9/11, India has been at pains to impress upon the United States and the coalition that it has been continually barking up the wrong tree, for nearly a decade, in its efforts to flush out bin Laden and his command centre in Afghanistan.
The crucible and epicenter of terrorism has all along been in Pakistan, it contended, in report after report to US intelligence all along these years – now borne out by Wikileaks revelations. As recently as 2007, Indian intelligence agencies had twice alerted their US counterparts that bin Laden was in the vicinity of Islamabad. Whether that advice went unheeded for tactical reasons or was simply ignored will become clearer in the coming weeks and months, but the fact remains that India knew.
The US instead, for its own perceived strategic reasons named Pakistan a key ally in its war, showered it with billions of dollars of funds and military infrastructure and continued to rely on it for bases to raid supposed hideouts in Afghanistan, while – as it turns out now – the prized quarry was very much in Pakistan and in all probability under the protection of a section of its own intelligence agency.
Indian Minister of Finance Palaniappan Chidambaram said that the fact that the killing took place in Pakistan proved once again that terror networks continue to find sanctuary in Pakistan. Like India, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during his press conference in Kabul, said he felt vindicated that the scene of the killing – at bin Laden’s base – was in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, a fact that he has been crying hoarse for some time.
It is inconceivable that nobody in Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s base in Abbotabad, not too far from the national capital of Islamabad. The compound in which the villa was situated was just a kilometre away from the country’s top military academy in what is recognized as a garrison town swarming with armed forces personnel.
The US authorities have said they knew about the compound since August last year and they surmised that bin Laden had lived at the address for as long as six or seven years. Yet, the Pakistanis would have the world believe that they knew nothing of the occupants of the villa, even though an important al Qaeda operative was apprehended there shortly after the villa was built about eight years ago.
It is impossible to believe that an intelligence set up that masterminded and remotely directed a sophisticated attack like the simultaneous multi-locational Mumbai shoot outs that killed more than 170 people did not know about the world’s most wanted man living under their very nose.
That US intelligence has lost its trust in Pakistani intelligence as an ally is obvious from the fact that Pakistan seems to have known nothing of the top-secret operation and that the main base for the operation itself was across the border in Afghanistan – not in Pakistan.
US leaders have already begun to question the “value” the country and the war against terror are getting out of its annual US$1.5 billion aid to Pakistan and continuing to count it as a “key” ally in the war. The continuation of funding will undoubtedly be questioned in the wake of revelations that have shocked Americans but have not even surprised most Indians.
Even though the toothless Pakistani administration and its law-unto-itself intelligence service has been caught with its pants down and doesn’t know where to look, the US needs to exercise great caution in making course corrections in its Pakistan policy.
The weak Pakistan government continues to exist only because it is propped up by various vested interests, not least of them the US itself, which has seen stability in Pakistan as key to its continuing fight against terrorism in the region. The semblance of political stability in Pakistan is still important – in fact even more than before.
Bin Laden’s six or seven year sanctuary and ultimately his end on Pakistani soil is symbolic of how his ideology and infrastructure has sympathisers in that country. It also confirms long held suspicions that powerful quarters within Pakistan – not least its highly secretive intelligence service – have shielded bin Laden and helped perpetuate the inspiration his ideology provides to the ever growing hordes of young adherents around the region and beyond.
There will be much finger pointing toward Pakistan, which, despite al Qaeda’s highly dispersed and decentralized leadership pattern will continue to remain an inspirational focal point for organisations that draw strength from his ideology – a sort of a spiritual centre because that’s where he lived and breathed his last.
The US has acted decisively to counter that at the very outset by removing his dead body from the site and claiming to bury it at sea before there could be any questions raised or opinions expressed from any quarters of what was to be done with his remains. To bury the body at sea was indeed an astute political decision.
But in the aftermath of the killing, the US will have to be careful with what it does in Pakistan. Any aggressive action to bring bin Laden’s Pakistani protectors and benefactors to book runs the risk of destabilising the present Pakistani government and bringing militant groups closer to the levers of power.
Such an eventuality will undoubtedly take the war on terror to its eastern most and riskiest front: nuclear armed South Asia. According to media reports fears have already begun to be expressed in Pakistani intelligence circles that the US will now step up its vigilance on Pakistan’s nuclear command centres, now that its faith in Pakistan’s intelligence partnership has been breached.
The US’s worst fear, as is India’s, is Pakistan’s nuclear apparatus falling into militant hands with the complicity of a section of sympathisers among the authorities – not at all an impossibility, going by what was revealed by Operation Geronimo.
First appeared in Indian Weekender, May 2011