The 2 May killing by U.S. Navy Seals of the notorious al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, at his residence next door to Pakistan’s principal military academy, Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), in Abbottabad, may not have a direct impact on the ongoing nine-year-old U.S.-NATO military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but it could very well change the U.S.-Pakistan relationship for years to come and may help to expedite the formulation of terms of exit for foreign troops in Afghanistan.
That operation was covert; but the objective was not covert and considered “necessary” by the American population generally.
There is no question that U.S.-Pakistan relations have always been transactional—i.e., the Pakistani military, the carrier of Pakistan’s flag for most of the years of its existence since 1947, performed tasks for the United States in return for cash, arms and American diplomatic support. That was the bread and butter of the relationship. Also embedded as an unstated part in the relationship was that the sovereign state of Pakistan would not encourage anti-U.S. forces on its soil, or elsewhere.
Though that unstated part of the relationship has been violated before, the United States, the provider of cash and arms and the beneficiary of tasks performed by the Pentagon’s favourite, the Pakistani military and its intelligence, ISI, always chose to look the other way. An instance is, in Afghanistan, in 1996, when Osama bin Laden, who had been stateless after carrying out repeated terrorist attacks against U.S. institutions in Arabia and Africa, turned up, settled down with the personal blessings of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar and trafficked heroin far and wide to buy arms for the host. Washington knew then, as it does now, that behind the rise of Mullah Omar, and his takeover of Kabul in 1996, were none other than Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two of the United States’ closest allies.
The series of contradictory statements issued by the PAF are also noteworthy. Soon after the incident, officials of the PAF reported that the PAF surveillance system had been jammed by the United States.
Despite this apparent incongruity, the transactional relationship between Washington and Pakistan’s military-intelligence combine continued under the pretext that Pakistan has no other institution of national power. Moreover, besides being a “good friend” from time to time, Pakistan was also the protector of the House of Saud, a key U.S. ally. The House of Saud needed protection before, as it does now, because a significant section of the Saudi population, including some military officials, considers the royal family to be usurpers of power. In the 1980s, Pakistan had outsourced its troops to provide physical protection to the House of Saud, the oil providers to the West and elsewhere, to make sure that it is not dislodged. That, too, was an unsaid part of the United States’ transactional relationship with Pakistan.
But this relationship has been endangered by what the American people came to know on the morning of 2 May: the United States’ numero uno enemy, Osama bin Laden, was not hiding in some distant mountainous area, beyond the reach of Pakistan’s formidable security forces; instead, he had been living for years less than a kilometre from the PMA, a military institution that is equivalent to America’s West Point, located in a virtual garrison town. Following the raid that killed bin Laden, the Pakistan military and Pakistan’s nominal democratic government in Islamabad raised their eyebrows in apparent surprise; but it also became rather embarrassing for such U.S. military brass as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had been meeting Pakistani chief of the armed services (COAS) General Ashfaq Kayani for years on a one-to-one basis. In other words, for years, Kayani had been throwing dust in Mullen’s eyes and the Americans could not figure that out. That is surely embarrassing.
A Smoke and Mirror Trick?
This close-to-a-fairy-tale version of the bin Laden assassination was solemnly presented to the people by the Obama administration. But it is difficult for any rational mind to envision the execution of the mission considering the risk it involved. One of the most incredible parts of this fairy tale is that the Pentagon brass and the White House assumed that four unidentified helicopters, flying close to the ground (to avoid radar interception) for at least 150 kilometres in their inward journey to the semigarrison town and the same distance out again afterwards in the middle of a summer night, when menfolk typically sleep on rooftops, would go unnoticed in a country where breach of security is a 24-hour priority concern of the military.
What could have happened if the Pakistani military had intercepted those helicopters? Would the U.S. Navy Seals have engaged themselves in a firefight with Americas long-time ally, the Pakistan military?
Another disturbing aspect is that those in power could consider such a mission worth the risk. What could have happened if the Pakistani military had intercepted those helicopters? Would the U.S. Navy Seals have engaged themselves in a firefight with America’s long-time ally, the Pakistan military? What would have been the consequences if all four helicopters, including their passengers, had been shot down by the Pakistani air force, which is fully equipped to do so? What would then have happened to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, which involves 100,000 American troops, and the future of the Obama presidency?
If indeed Pakistan had been kept in the dark about this elaborate operation, it could have turned out to be a tactically worse mission than “the charge of the light brigade” immortalised in Tennyson’s poem by the same title. Because of its very nature, this mission was quite different from President Carter’s failed hostage rescue operation in Iran in 1979. That operation was covert; but the objective was not covert and considered “necessary” by the American population generally. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not have such unanimous backing.