Friday, May 06, 2011

A victory in the long war against terrorism

Machiavelli is the author of the saying “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Islamabad was certainly practising what the author of The Prince advocated: The hideout where Osama bin Laden was killed was a stone’s throw from Pakistan Military Academy, the headquarters of a Pakistani army division and the regimental centres of the Frontier Force and the Baloch Regiments. In the parlance of covert operations, such places are called “safe houses” and what could be safer than a house in the middle of a cantonment?
The relationship between Islamabad and Washington has been somewhat strange. The Pakistanis have ostensibly delivered all the Al Qaeda figures they could lay their hands on  for what is now a total of $20 billion in aid. At the same time, the Pakistani establishment has provided support and sanctuary to the Taliban, the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar group and the Haqqani network which is fighting the US in Afghanistan. The Americans have been fully aware of this double game, but been able to do little about it. Will Osama’s killing change things?
Speaking to the nation, and indeed the world, US President Barack Obama made it abundantly clear that the operation was an entirely American affair and any information about it was conveyed to the Pakistani authorities only after the deed was done. A report of a meeting in Islamabad convened by President Asif Zardari and attended,  among others, by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, and the heads of various intelligence agencies notes, “The meeting was told that the Pakistan forces did not take part in the operation and the operation was done under the US policy and Pakistan was informed after the completion of operation.”

For a man who had vanished into the thin air after that battle in Tora Bora in the winter of 2001, there are a lot of answers that the world will be looking for. Some will be forthcoming through his autopsy which the Americans will have no doubt conducted. For example, was he in need of regular dialysis? Second, there will be questions about his whereabouts in these years and his relations, if any,  with Pakistani authorities. The answer to this, too, will be forthcoming since the US has custody of his wives and children who will no doubt be debriefed. In addition there is an unspecified number of persons captured at the site who will provide some answers.
There are some questions that Pakistan, too, needs to answer in a credible fashion. Principally, who owned the building where Osama was staying? We should not forget that all the top Al Qaeda leaders who have been arrested till now were found in Pakistani safehouses—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshib in Karachi, Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad. We are being told that the national identity card of the house-owner was bogus and that no such person exists. How convenient!
Just as the rise of bin Laden had consequences for the world, so could his sudden death. His killing took place at a time when the Arab world has been hit by a string of what are clearly secular revolts—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. It is quite clear, as of now, that the Islamists have taken a back seat and that the popular anger against authoritarian rule has been led by the rising middle-class, rather than a bunch of fanatics who want to take the region, if not the world into the medieval ages. So, bin Laden’s end could be the signal that the high tide of jihadism which was unleashed by the American-Saudi jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, is now ebbing.
In Pakistan, there are two possible outcomes. One, that his death will mark the beginning of the end of the Al Qaeda led anti-American war in Afghanistan and the elimination of the groups which were propped up by the outfit—the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Haqqani network and the loose coalition of Punjabi militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Harkat-ul-mujahideen and so on and
so forth.
On the other hand, the event could actually intensify the anti-American movement in Pakistan and serve to re-energise the jihadists and their constituency. This is, after all, a country where the murderer of Salman Taseer was feted by the middle-class lawyers of Lahore. Radicals of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba know that the US will use the occasion to push the Pakistan army into an offensive in North Waziristan. And if the US has additional information on the possible complicity of some Pakistani officials in shielding bin Laden, they would gain a major leverage against the generals in Rawalpindi who are procrastinating. 
The consequences of Osama’s death will be indirect in India, though they could be important. Despite periodic alarums, the Al Qaeda did not operate in India and had no “India” chapter. The link comes through Pakistani militant groups that had allied themselves to the Al Qaeda and who shared their Wahabbist religious outlook such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba.  But even the Lashkar which focuses its operations on India, has by-and-large avoided recruiting Indian Muslims. Their operations, such as the Mumbai attack were handled exclusively by Pakistani and Pakistani-origin Muslims, notwithstanding claims to the contrary by the Mumbai police.
But, if the US learns that there was much greater complicity of Pakistani officials in giving sanctuary to Osama, things could be different. For the past several years, the US has made its distrust of Pakistan quite clear; even while it has provided Islamabad with billions of dollars of aid, it has stopped sharing vital information, such as planned drone strikes with their Pakistani counterparts. The recent relationship between the two countries has been rocky. Last week, the Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Dawn newspaper “It is fairly well known that the ISI has a long standing relationship with the Haqqani network [which] is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners… but that’s the core that I think is the most difficult part of the relationship [between the US and Pakistan].” 
But winning one battle does not constitute victory in a war. The death of bin Laden can be a beginning of a process, but one which we cannot take for granted. The Al Qaeda idea has spread far and wide and while it is unlikely that another leader of Osama bin Laden’s calibre will emerge, there will be many smaller bin Ladens around.
The United States needs to carefully use the occasion of bin Laden’s death to shift the momentum against the jihadists in a definitive manner.
They have shown great courage and determination in planning and executing the covert operation that netted Osama, but now they need equal political common sense and hard diplomacy to consolidate their gains.
Mail Today May 3, 2011

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