By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
To look forward beyond Osama bin Laden, it is essential that the present be known. This is the hard part, as both the United States and Pakistan, equally complicit in the bin Laden killing plot, are hiding more than revealing. While stakes for both are high, the Pakistanis hold better cards in the aftermath of bin Laden exit. For the US, it was important to kill bin Laden in as spectacular fashion as he did the 9/11. This would boost US’ chances of getting its boys home from Afghanistan earlier than expected. However, the condition was that the Pakistan Army could not be trampled upon. This is the reason for the song and dance by US President Barack Obama and his key advisors absolving its dubious partner of insincerity.
In his opening announcement on bin Laden killing, Obama did not forget to mention Pakistan’s cooperation in counter-terrorism. His chief counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, while standing before cameras within 48 hours of bin Laden killing, refused to accuse Pakistan of anything; much out of context, he noted that Pakistan, since 9/11 had captured and killed more terrorists than any country. Once the domestic heat built upon the Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani and his ISI buddy, Lt. General Shuja Pasha for complicity or incompetence, the US National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon decided to forego his Sunday holiday on May 8 and appeared on five of six US talk shows. He hammered the single point that the US had no information to suggest that Pakistani security establishment knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts in their midst.
Regarding incompetence, the US has put out stories of their radar-evading helicopters and brilliant human-intelligence that led to bin Laden. This theory has been seconded by former Pakistan Army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, who disclosed that Pakistani air defence systems on the Afghanistan front are weak if not non-existent. Contrary to the Abraham Lincoln wisdom that you cannot fool all people all the time, the US and Pakistan seems to have pulled the feat, at least for now. However, FORCE, which has followed the story, has a different view of what happened. With minor variations on details, we believe that the Pakistan Army (ISI is a part of it, and not an independent entity) has sold a stone for a precious diamond; Osama bin Laden had not only outlived his usefulness, but was an impediment in the follow-on plot of reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He had to be dispensed with.
While it may be true that the US got a vague lead on bin Laden six months ago through a Guantanamo detainee, it could not have zeroed-in on to bi Laden’s house in Abbottabad without Kayani’s complicity. The story about CIA hiring a neighbourhood house to watch bin Laden’s activities is simply incredible. It would also be wrong to suggest that Kayani succumbed to the US pressure to confirm bin Laden’s abode; had he wanted he could have moved bin Laden and his entourage to another place. Osama bin Laden was moved to the military cantonment under Kayani’s (then, ISI chief) watch six years ago, to be used as a triumph card subsequently against the US. Another reason was to maintain a watch and hold on the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Quetta Shura, who had sacrificed Afghanistan for bin Laden’s friendship. During the protracted banishment, once friends, bin Laden and Mullah Omar drifted apart ideologically. Osama bin Laden propagated global Jihad while Mullah Omar was fighting to regain Afghanistan from the US (reports emerging after bin Laden’s killing clearly suggest that the two had not communicated since years).
Washington, with overstretched military capabilities amidst a recession, and with NATO allies threatening to quit the war, wanted an honourable exit from Afghanistan. The way out for the US was to have a reconciliation government (Hamid Karzai and Taliban) in Afghanistan, an invisible US military presence to keep the Taliban and Pakistani misadventures in check, and to be part of a regional assistance effort for Afghanistan. While Pakistan has an essential role in the formation of the reconciliation Afghanistan government, the CIA with proven predator capability and in cooperation (whatever possible) with the ISI would maintain US intelligence footprint in Pakistan. It is not a coincidence that the US overall forces commander, General David Petraeus will be the new CIA chief.
Four recent events settled the Afghanistan chessboard with the US, Pakistan, Taliban and Karzai as key players. The first was the unprecedented April 16 meeting in Kabul in which Kayani and Shuja Pasha took Premier Yusuf Raza Gilani to meet President Karzai. Until now the two sides were talking separately with the US; it was time to settle Afghanistan, politically and from security perspective, face-to-face. Once the future of Afghanistan was agreed in which both Karzai and Mullah Omar would have prominent roles, it was time to free senior Taliban leaders from captivity. Within days, news came of the Kandahar jail break-out where 450 Talibans helped themselves to freedom. This was assurance for Mullah Omar that he was onboard. These developments pleased Kayani so much that the usually reticent Pakistan Army chief could not suppress his glee during his April 23 visit to Kakul Military Academy; stone throw from bin Laden’s house. His remarks that Pakistan had broken the back of terrorism sounded out of context on that day. The final event was curtains for bin Laden. To make it dramatic, the US insisted that bin Laden had to die in his present house; he could not be shifted elsewhere. With so much in his pocket, Kayani agreed. He could not be unaware of the risks he was taking; his own and his army’s reputation was at stake. After all, he would have delivered Afghanistan to Pakistan.
It will be a while before frayed nerves in the US and Pakistan calm down. The US Congress needs to know why an unreliable ally should be rewarded, just as Pakistanis are asking hard questions about the holy cow, its army. The coming months will see a lot. The formation of the Afghanistan reconciliation government, the announcement of a quick US drawdown of troops from the war zone, financial and military assistance for Pakistan, and release of US armed drones for the Pakistan Army to name a few. Where does this leave India which has invested over USD1.3 billion in development in Afghanistan and had hoped that the US military presence would remain in the war torn country long enough for a regional effort to emerge. The latter will still happen, but having been fence-sitters, India will be sidelined by Pakistan, China and Iran for the regional role in Afghanistan.