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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 20, May 7, 2011

Defining Moment in the War on Terror

Editorial

Saturday 14 May 2011, by SC

Osama bin Laden is no more. The Al-Qaeda supremo, regarded as the world’s most dreaded terrorist, was shot dead by US forces in the early hours of May 2, 2011 at a spacious building in a massive compound, fortified with high walls and barbed wires, in Abbottabad (about 60 km north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad), a city where the Kakul Military Academy is located. This has stunned both the Pakistani establishment and people at large—and the general impression of well-informed experts and specialists in both the US and India, that is, those who are impartial observers harbouring no ill-will towards the Pakistani polity in general, is that Osama could not have been staying in that place (where he was least expected) for the last six years (as investigations have now revealed) without at least the knowledge, if not the connivance, of the hard-core ISI, the extra-constitutional intelligence apparatus of the country that was instrumental in sponsoring, nurturing and promoting the Al-Qaeda’s sister organisation, the Taliban, in Afghanistan (it has now spread to the Pakistani heartland striking terror among the Pakistani people). As Walter Anderson, the Director of South Asian Studies at the John Hopkins University, explains, if the ISI was ignorant of this development (of Osama’s stay in Abbottabad for such a length of time) one would conclude that it is thoroughly incompetent which it is surely not; so the conclusion to be drawn is that Osama was there enjoying a substantial measure of support from that organisation.

There is a strong opinion (not just in this country but elsewhere, including the US, as well) that the operation, carried out by the US special forces, that is, the Navy Seals, was sucessful precisely because it was a wholly American exercise as Washington did not share the information of the impending strike with Islamabad. Of course, President Obama, while announcing the sucess of the operation, informed that “our counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding”. That may well be true. But the Pakistani military, especially the ISI, was kept in the dark about the strike the US was planning on its own. In fact by the time the Pakistani military authorities became alert, following the snag in one of the helicopters used for the operaiton (which is why it was subsequently blown up), the 40-minute operation was already over. This, it is more than transparent, was done to ensure that the US strategy does not get leaked out to the Al-Qaeda chief. So much for the level of trust between the US and Pakistan!

In this context what Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times after the execution of bin Laden is worth close scrutiny.

General Kayani appears to be less enthusiastic about the alliance with the United States because he is under pressure from his senior Generals, according to Pakistani officials who keep in touch with the military. About half of the 11 corps commanders, the Generals who make up the senior command, have questioned the wisdom of the alliance, according to the officials. Some of the younger mid-ranking officers—Majors and Captains—seem to have more sympathy for the militants than for the idea of fighting them, they said.

A Pew poll taken in Pakistan in early 2010 showed that only 3 per cent of Pakistanis believed that the al-Qaeda was a threat and 68 per cent held a negative view of the US.

In ties marked with irritants, bin Laden was a big one. American officials have speculated over the last few years whether some Pakistani officials in the spy agency knew his wheres-abouts. When asked, many Pakistani ISI officials nearly always gave the same answer: Bin Laden was dead, or they insisted, they did not know where he was.

This brings us to the nature of the US-Pakistan ties at present, as well as the growing clout of Osasma in Pakistan. This clout is seen not only from the protest demonstrations organised in different parts of the country following the Al-Qaeda leader’s death, but also the fact that lawyers in Peshawar held a congregation to mourn his death.

Of course, the influence of fundamentalist forces among the people in Pakistan has been enhanced over the years. But for that the US cannot shirk its responsibility. Here noted journalist Hamid Mir’s views should not be brushed aside. Hamid, who works for Pakistan’s Geo TV, has written:

Osama is dead but Al-Qaeda and its allies are not. Bin Laden always exploited flaws in American policies. His real strength was hatred against America, not Islam. His physical elimination is big news for the Americans but many outside America want elimination of the policies that may produce more Osamas. No doubt he was responsible for the killing of many innocent people but the Americans cannot justify killing innocents through drone attacks on that count. Both bin Laden and the Americans violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. This must stop now.

At the same time one must give due importance to the opinions of the veteran award-winning journalist, Robert Fisk, who—apart from being the most informed commentator of events in the Middle East, having lived in Beirut for more than 30 years and reported and written from there for The Independent—had the distinction of interviewing Osama bin Laden on three occasions. Claiming that bin Laden’s death was quite irrelevant in comparison with the Arab awakening in the Middle East in the last few months, he says the Al-Qaeda leader knew he was a failure but now the US has turned him into a martyr. He also asserts that he was betrayed by Pakistan which all along knew his hiding place. At the same time he explains:

As far as he’s concerned, he founded Al-Qaeda and that was in his eyes his achievement.

Over the last few months you’ve seen an Arab awakening in which millions of Arab Muslims have overthrown their own leaderships.

Bin Laden always wanted to get rid of Mubarak and Ben Ali and Gaddafi and so on claiming that they were all infidels working for America and in fact it was millions of ordinary people who peacefully, more or less—certainly in the case of Tunisia and Egypt—got rid of them.

Bin Laden didn’t, he failed to do that.

You’ve got to remember these regimes have always been telling the Americans ‘keep on supporting us because if you don’t Al-Qaeda will take over’—and in fact Al-Qaeda did not take over.

In this country there is no dearth of security experts and defence analysts who suggest that India should emulate the US in targeting such figures as Hafiz Sayeed and Dawood Ibrahim who have found refuge within Pakistan. They totally ignore the fact of violation of Pakistani sovereignty by any such act. The US operation against Osama too was carried out by the Obama Administration in complete disregard of this principle which would have definitely come into sharp focus had the operation been botched up. Apart from the risks involved in such an adventurous step on our part, any such action would smack of an element of expansionism which has never been part of India’s policy-perspective as a democratic nation wedded as we are to peace, non-interferance and non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and our neighbours in particular.

Osama is dead. It must be acknowledged in all frankness that this is a defining moment in the worldwide struggle against terror. Following this development Barack Obama has been able to enhance his popularity rating within the US by 11 percentage points. As for Osama, he has met the fate that he deserved—those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword. But the US has yet to realise why he (bin Laden) could exercise such a magnetic spell on such a large segment of the global population for so long.

For that realisation to dawn on it, it needs to engage in honest self-introspection. That should also be undertaken by all those in this country eager to blindly imitate Washington in all fields of activity.

May 5 S.C.

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