Ten years to pursue; 40 minutes to kill: that is the sum total of the Bin Laden saga.
The end of Osama bin Laden.
In the wee hours of Sunday, May 2, 2011, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs, in four helicopters alighted on a house in Abbottabad that sheltered Osama bin Laden and his family. They killed him, one of his sons and three other men besides injuring his wife in her leg. One of the helicopters that had crashed was destroyed.
The raiders took away the bodies of Bin Laden and his son. Later, the White House announced that Osama’s body was washed, wrapped in a shroud and, after reciting the ritual Muslim prayer, was lowered into the Arabian Sea from the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson. But there was no mention of how they disposed of his minor son’s corpse.
Osama’s death has rid the U.S. of a long nightmare. For ten years this man alone held the supreme world power in thrall. He bled America economically and forced it into its longest war in history that killed more of its men than had died in 9/11.
Americans went crazy with joy in Washington and New York at the report of Bin Laden’s death. But in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, there were prayers for the departed soul. Hamas praised him and Afghan Taliban vowed revenge.
Bin Laden was living in posh Abbottabad, within a stone’s throw of the Pakistan Military Academy, instead of hiding in some underground cave in the inaccessible areas of the Af-Pak border. As is common in the area, the house stood on a sprawling compound, with “12-18ft high walls, topped with barbed wire and two security gates. The main part of the residence was three storeys high ….with a third-floor terrace, shielded by a privacy wall.” But there was no telephone or internet connection.
According to western newspaper reports and White House briefing after the event, CIA chased various leads about Bin Laden’s inner circle, particularly his couriers, identifying one, “four years ago.”
In 2008, the CIA was able to form a rough idea of the location where the courier and his brother lived, and in August last year they narrowed it down to a compound in Abbottabad.
“Last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden,” said President Obama in his speech after the event.
According to the New York Times, “By September, the CIA had determined there was a strong possibility that the hideout was Bin Laden’s, and, by February, they were confident they had the right location.
In March, Obama began chairing a series of five national security meetings. In the last of these, on Friday,
April 29, Obama “met his national security adviser Thomas Donilon, counter-terrorism adviser John O Brennan, and other senior national security aides to go through the detailed plan to attack the compound and signed the formal orders authorizing it,” the paper said. But Obama chose to keep Pakistan’s government in the dark about the operation.
“We shared our intelligence on this compound with no other country, including Pakistan,” a senior administration official told the NYT.
U.S. officials told the Associated Press that at around 1.15 am local time on Monday, four U.S. military helicopters, carrying elite troops from Navy Seal Team Six, flew to Abbottabad, “under the direct command of the CIA director, Leon Panetta, whose analysts monitored the compound from his conference room.”
There has been a deluge of statements from the White House since then, each contradicting the other and raising widespread questions about the propriety, ethics and legality of the action. Even Obama’s pompous rhetoric claiming that the operation was carried out “with extraordinary courage and capability,” assumes a hollow ring.
There were at least 25 (some reports put the number at 79) highlytrained and armed individuals in protective gear using night-vision goggles. They had already apprehended some other, more able-bodied individuals in the house and bound their hands together. They could have done the same with Bin Laden.
But Obama calls it extraordinary courage and he is an honorable man.
The White House has since admitted that Bin Laden had no weapon. His daughter, 12, has said that her father was captured alive and then shot dead by U.S. Special Forces. And CIA director Leon Panetta has now told NBC that the troops’ orders were to kill him.
Reuters also reports that there was no resistance, no firefight, and photographs taken an hour after the raid show three dead men, other than OBL and his son, lying in pools of blood. There were no weapons. But Obama claimed in his speech, “After a firefight, they killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.” And he is an honorable man.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said “The killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.” But President Obama said, “Justice has been done.” And truly, he is an honorable man.
Immediately after the action, counter-terrorism adviser, John Bren- nan claimed at a White House briefing that Bin Laden was living in a “million-dollar-plus compound” and “hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield.”
But the next day this was exposed as a dastardly lie, when White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the victim had used any woman as a shield. Besides, the Associated Press has since reported that “the four original plots of land that were joined to create the compound were bought for $48,000 in 2004 and 2005.”
Obama has rejected public demand to release the picture of Bin Laden’s corpse, which fuels the suspicion that out of sheer anger his killers had so mangled his body with bullets that its picture would not only ignite the wrath of Muslims but also the loathing of all fair-minded people.
Obama is using the event as a PR scoop. His sagging stock has jumped up many points in the opinion polls. As another gimmick the White House released a photograph of the president and his aides in the situation room watching the action as it unfolded. But CIA director Leon Panetta revealed there was a 25 minute blackout during which the live feed from cameras mounted on the helmets of the U.S. Special Forces was cut off. And the whole operation took forty minutes.
So what was Obama watching? Meanwhile, as Bin laden’s body was being flown away, President Zardari was composing an op-ed piece for the Washington Post with voluble reassurance of his unflinching loyalty to the U.S. administration and people. It appeared on May 2.
The Pakistan government and particularly its military, stands utterly humiliated. How can it explain Benazir’s statement in 2007 that Osama was dead and Rahman Malik’s response to a question about Bin Laden’s whereabouts in 2009, that he “had no clue?” He added that he did not believe that Bin Laden was in the area. He had sent his family to Iran, so it made sense that he might have gone there himself. “Alternatively, he might be hiding in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or perhaps he was already dead.”
How can the army, the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau explain that they were unaware that OBL had been living for six years in the vicinity of the Pakistan Military Academy? How can they answer these pertinent questions from the British Prime Minster, David Cameron and Sen. Carl Levin, among others?
The helicopter flight from Bagram to Abbottabad would have taken the raiders over (or near) three bases of the Pakistani air force, including the very active army helicopter base at Tarbela. A PAF spokesman has since claimed that the radars were fully functional. Maybe the PAF radar units could not pick them because the SEALs were using a new kind of stealth helicopters.
However, from Bagram to Abbottabad and back, with 45 minutes’ hovering time at the location, is quite an extended time for choppers to go without re-fuelling, even with a disposable fuel tank. So there must have been a “forward base” where fuel bowsers re-fuelled the choppers. Yet there is no word from any source on such a forward base.
In Pakistan, the Foreign Office and the army chief are posturing to contain public outrage. The Foreign Office said that Pakistan had been cooperative in intelligence-gathering in the past. But on the next day it said, “This event of unauthorized unilateral action cannot be taken as a rule” and “shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the U.S.”
Meanwhile, the army chief has called for a reduced U.S. presence and ordered an inquiry into the intelligence “debacle.” But still there is no one offering resignation on this national shame.
Tailpiece: Prime Minister Gilani who was hibernating in the salubrious spring of France while America was “invading” the country, entertained the parliament with a rambling speech that touched not only on the OBL issue but covered other fields of Pakistan’s foreign relations as well, mentioning India, China and Afghanistan.
Forgetting that, after the Bin Laden episode the whole world is watching Pakistan with amusement and some contempt, he laced his harangue with the usual bravado that is congenital to Pakistani political and military leadership and some remarks that were either palpably risible or outright inane.
For example, he cited sacrificing 30,000 Pakistan troops in the antiterror crusade for the nth time. He, “emphatically” rejected allegations of complicity or incompetence as absurd. But the masterpiece was his claim that “all intelligence agencies of the world” failed to locate bin Laden.
As if quoting from a book of proverbs, Gilani pontificated that “Unilateralism runs the inherent risk of serious consequences” and warned, “Let no one draw any wrong conclusions. Any attack against Pakistan’s strategic assets whether overt or covert will find a matching response; Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force.” But who this warning was meant for he did not give any clue. If it was for India or America he was wasting his breath, for India will never attack Pakistan as it has never had. And America does not care for it anyway. So, as the foreign media has discovered, the bombast was for domestic consumption. The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia Magazine.