The Killing of Osama bin Laden

History News Network (May 2, 2011)

Ten years after the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden is dead. His killing in a CIA operation in the Pakistani colonial city of Abbottabad, about thirty miles from the capital, Islamabad, brings a closure for relatives of many thousands of victims of al Qaeda violence around the world. It will be seen as ultimate justice for the man viewed as the chief perpetrator of international terrorism for two decades. The sentiment is understandable, even justified. However, there is a bigger truth. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the heart of America unleashed a global crisis. The subsequent ‘war on terror’ so polarized the world that there will be those who will mourn bin Laden’s death. It is an uncomfortable truth, but should not be overlooked. For although his physical presence may be behind us, the legend of Osama bin Laden still lives.  

The biblical expression – Those who live by the sword will die by the sword – comes to mind. On the other side of the coin is the phrase – The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The simplicity and perils of this mindset are revealed by the manner of Osama bin Laden’s death now and his creation at the outbreak of the CIA proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan three decades ago. There is no dearth of experts associated with think tanks inside the Washington Beltway who claim with confidence that the United States had no contact with bin Laden, and did not help him. These claims are often based on the logic that bin Laden was already so hostile to the West that any warm relationship with the United States was out of the question. But Mujahideen warlords like Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Haqqani were hostile to Western ideology as well. Their opposition was strengthened during the time they spent in the Arab world. Yet they and the West became allies in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Comments made by Britain’s ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook in an article in the Guardian newspaper are worth noting at this point (The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means, July 8, 2005). In one passage, Cook, who had earlier resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said:

Bin Laden was … a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.   

Robin Cook was a politician of immense credibility. An ex-foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons (another cabinet post) with access to classified information, his revelation after resigning would reasonably have to take precedence over other expert opinion. Cook did not live long after writing his article in the Guardian. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack barely a month later in August 2005. Had he lived, we may well have learned more from him. The purpose of my reference to the past is to make a point about the present. Hiring armed men driven by ideological zeal, and willing to fight your enemy for dollars, is a highway that goes through minefields, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or anywhere else.

The killing of bin Laden in a US special forces operation will go a long way toward assuring the reelection of President Obama in November 2012. In the short run, though, the outcome has implications for al Qaeda, Pakistan and the West, including the United States. Bin Laden’s demise has taken out America’s most recognized and resourceful enemy, who inspired those discontented enough to kill innocent people. A wealthy man in his own right, he could both finance al Qaeda activities, and attract money from other sources. Many of those channels will surely be cut. But the risk of revenge attacks is real. The ruling establishment in Pakistan has to tread carefully. Already angry by frequent American drone attacks in the tribal areas, Pakistan’s public opinion remains extremely sensitive to any US military incursion so deep inside the country. Official reaction in Islamabad is therefore brief and non-committal.

Conflicting messages are coming from Washington and Islamabad about the degree of cooperation between the CIA and Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Some sources claim that the Pakistani authorities had no idea about the US operation. President Obama, announcing that bin Laden had been targeted and killed by American forces, nevertheless said, “It is important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped us lead to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”

The episode raises many questions. For instance, could it be true that Osama bin Laden had been living in an expensive home, especially built five years ago, next to the Pakistan Military Academy a few miles from the capital city, without the authorities having a clue? Would anything similar be possible close to West Point in the United States, Sandhurst in Britain or one of the military academies in India? Were there any Pakistanis who might have advised bin Laden to move from his hideout in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt to a garrison town deep inside the country? If so, who were they?

The construction of a new mansion-style house in a colonial city is a big project and requires the planning permission, preparation and supervision. In whose name was the application made? Who managed the building project so close to the country’s premier military establishment? Was it all due to a series of monumental failures on many fronts? Or was there any involvement of Pakistan’s security agencies, or individuals serving in them, and what may have been their motive? The whole episode is shrouded in mystery. Answers to some of these questions may come in time, but nothing is straightforward in the world of spies and clandestine operations.

There exists a difficult relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI, supposedly America’s partner in the ‘war on terror’ and simultaneously close to militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In reality, the past conduct of the ISI shows that the agency has sometimes kept certain al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban figures from Washington, and handed others over to the CIA at other times. In a high-profile case, the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a leading al Qaeda figure, was announced in March 2003 from a ‘safe house’ of a Pakistani military officer. The officer had family links with one of Pakistan’s religious parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, which supported the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, a close partner in President George W Bush’s war on terrorism.

In my book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have described how Sheikh Mohammed was protected and moved around by the ISI until he was handed over to the United States (Chapter 4, p 52). The conduct of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in recent years suggests that while they have been willing to hand over ‘low-value’ suspects, or in many instances innocent people, to the CIA, they have withheld the most valuable individuals. These people were passed on to the Americans when there was likelihood of extracting a high price in return, or when the CIA confronted the Pakistani authorities with evidence that a wanted person was in Pakistan and the United States knew the location. Whether this was true in Osama bin Laden’s case, or whether the recent controversy over the arrest of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis after the reported deaths of two Pakistani nationals in a firefight is relevant remains a topic of speculation.

The success of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden is certainly a major coup for President Obama – something his predecessor, George W Bush did not manage in nearly eight years. It will boost Obama’s popularity in the United States, and greatly improve his prospects in the November 2012 presidential election. However, it is unlikely to bring the threat of terrorism to an end, given the continuing conflicts in which the United States and allies are involved in the region. Since assuming the presidency more than two years ago, Obama has often repeated his intention to make sure that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are no longer a threat to America’s security. The influence of al Qaeda seems to have declined in recent years, and the killing of bin Laden is the latest, most serious setback to the organization. Instead, the ‘Arab Spring’ is sweeping across the region. While the peaceful mass movement demanding basic freedoms appears to have achieved some success in Egypt, the ‘Arab Spring’ has to endure suppression in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Syria. The conflict in Libya is more akin to tribal warfare, with Muammar Gaddafi’s military apparently determined to crush the armed opposition which NATO supports. With bin Laden no longer on the scene, will President Obama seize the moment, refocus on the ‘Arab Spring’ and let flowers bloom?  

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