Abbotabad Raid : The Decision
Nearly 3 years ago, in July 2008 the author came across a book that dealt with the likely locating of Osama Bin Laden (OBL for short) in a Pakistani city. The book predicted a heliborne assault. But even more interestingly, the book raised the crucial question on future of Pakistani nukes and the likelihood of these falling into the hands of the terrorists. Below is the fictional account of the American discussions that must have taken place before the raid on Abbotabad. The chapter has been reproduced below with the permission of the author.
The Pak Nuclear Scenario
A few weeks before Operation to nab Osama Bin laden was launched, its likely impact had been discussed threadbare in the US. At the NSC meeting that finalized Operation Falcon, much time was spent in discussing the aftermath of the capture of OBL. It was expected and accepted that there would be a general mayhem on the Muslim street. American citizens and businesses would be the first targets. But unfortunately as the President mentioned, the need for secrecy precluded any advance warning to hapless civilians. It was agreed, with a nod from State Department, that a private warning without any mention of a time frame would be given to all Americans. In any case, in the most volatile countries, there were very few Americans.
“¦that Osama bin Laden had expressed a keen interest in nuclear weapons and had sought the scientists help in recruiting other Pakistani nuclear experts who could provide expertise in the mechanics of bomb-making.
The Secretary of State then gave her assessment of the politics in Pakistan and the threat it posed to the US. “Besides the street violence that we must expect, the second aspect of the backlash was what would happen in Pakistan and to its nukes,” she said.
“Pakistan’s nuclear complex poses two main threats. The first, that nuclear weapons, know-how, or materials will find their way into the hands of terrorists. For instance, we have learned that in August of 2001, even as the final planning for 9/11 was under way, Osama bin Laden received two former officials of Pakistan’s atomic-energy program—Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid—at a secret compound near Kabul. Over the course of three days of intense Jihad: From Hindukush to Armageddon 52 conversation, bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, grilled Mahmood and Majid about how to make weapons of mass destruction.”
“After Mahmood and Majid were arrested, on October 23, 2001, Mahmood told Pakistani interrogation teams, working in concert with the CIA, that Osama bin Laden had expressed a keen interest in nuclear weapons and had sought the scientists’ help in recruiting other Pakistani nuclear experts who could provide expertise in the mechanics of bomb-making. CIA Director George Tenet found the report of Mahmood and Majid’s meeting with bin Laden so disturbing that he flew directly to Islamabad to confront Pakistan’s President,” the Secretary of State said. She went on, “Clearly, there is a significant danger that the black market will put Pakistani nukes, or nuclear material and technical knowledge, in terrorist hands—if it hasn’t already. But there is a second, equally significant danger: that a coup might topple the President and leave all or some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under the control of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or some other militant Islamic group or, indeed, under the control of more than one.”
“¦in order to keep its focal enemy, India, from destroying its arsenal in a pre-emptive strike, Pakistan has hidden its nuclear weapons throughout the country”¦
” Part of the problem is that in order to keep its focal enemy, India, from destroying its arsenal in a pre-emptive strike, Pakistan has hidden its nuclear weapons throughout the country; some of them may be in regions that are effectively under fundamentalist Muslim control. Moreover, Pakistan’s official alliance with the United States in the war on terror has only increased the danger posed by al-Qaeda sympathizers within its nuclear establishment. Although Pakistan has pledged unstinting cooperation in the fight against terrorism, not all the thousands of officers in Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies have signed on.”
“After all, until 9/11 some of them were working closely with members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nor, for that matter, does Pakistan’s general population support the alliance with the United States. The uneasy contradiction between pro-American foreign policy and the widespread anti-Americanism within Pakistan has forced Pakistani policymakers to walk a razor’s edge.”
It would seem that the capture/killing of OBL would enhance the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack on the US.
The Secretary paused to take a breath. No one said a word, and she continued, “Under these conditions the emergence of a nuclear-equipped splinter group from within the Pakistani establishment looks disturbingly plausible. Provoked by anger due to the feeling that President has made Pakistan a puppet of the United States, such a group would have not only a motive and the domestic political support for a nuclear terrorist act against America but also the organizational competence, the expertise, and the raw material to carry it out. What to do about this combustible mixture of extreme political instability and nuclear capability is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing U.S. today,” she said. As the Secretary of State finished, there was a silence as members of the NSC absorbed the finer points of his presentation. It would seem that the capture/killing of OBL would enhance the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack on the US.
The President readily accepted the assessment but posed a counter question, “Will keeping OBL free and at large to carry on his activities, diminish that threat? No, at some point in time OBL may launch not just an isolated terrorist attack but even may accumulate several nukes to launch a concerted attack using ‘unconventional’ means of delivery.” Reluctantly, he motioned to the National Security Advisor to give a brief outline of the US South Asia Nuclear Strategy.
The NSA, a man of few words and seldom spoke at most meetings of the NSC. But it was due to the fact that under the President’s strict instructions, certain aspects of US strategy were not discussed even at the NSC. The complicated American game plan in South Asia was one of them. But he understood the rationale behind the President’s decision to make an exception this time. No one understood it more, with his vast experience of inter services wrangles that in order for an operation to succeed all the participating agencies had to come on board willingly. Operation against OBL was complicated in the sense of the involvement of many agencies and was far too important to risk failure.
Pakistans nukes now became an embarrassment and a problem. But even now its anti-Indian orientation meant that it was at worst a regional threat.
The NSA began slowly in measured tones, almost as if giving a lecture to National Defence University. Outlining the history of the area he began by tracing the events of the late 20th century.
“You all are familiar with the Indo-Pak blood feud. India always had an ambition to play the role of regional if not a global super power. In the early 1960s it acquired most of the wherewithal for Plutonium based nuclear weapons, partly through our help since we wanted them as counter to the Chinese. It was also in part through own efforts. In 1974 India went overt with its capability. By then our relations with China had improved to the point that we were in a quasi-alliance with it against the Soviet Union. At that time India was more or less firmly in the Soviet Camp, at NATO exercises we used to count Indian forces as part of the enemy strength. It made sense to us and Chinese, to counter this capability by building a Pakistani counter. We did it indirectly through the Europeans, particularly the Germans. In fact, when the Dutch were bent upon prosecuting that rouge AQ Khan, we prevented them from doing so. We were careful that while we let Pakistan develop Uranium 235 based nukes, we stalled their attempts to get there through the Plutonium route. The idea was that the bulky nukes that Pakistan would thus have will be aircraft dependent for delivery, the F-16s supplied by us. Since we controlled the spares for F-16, we controlled the delivery system that could reach India but not anywhere else, especially Israel.