Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Pakistan has a price to pay

Pakistan has a price to pay
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - United States officials modified their narrative on Osama bin Laden's killing on Monday in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad to protect Pakistan's broader interests against threats from militants, saying that the Pakistanis had little involvement.

However, well-placed security sources maintain that the operation in Abbottabad - just a two-hour drive north of the capital Islamabad - was without a doubt a joint Pakistan-US effort and that all logistics were arranged inside Pakistan.

All the same, while Pakistan's military command was aware that the operation targeted a high-value suspect, it was completelyunaware that it was in fact Bin Laden until this was announced by the Americans after the al-Qaeda leader had been shot dead by US Special Forces.

The operation to get Bin Laden was similar to the one that netted Indonesian al-Qaeda operative Umar Patek - the mastermind of the Bali bombings in Indonesia in 2002 that killed more than 200 people - from Abbottabad in late January.

So when Pakistani intelligence gave the approval for American gunship helicopters to fly from Tarbella Ghazi, 20 kilometers from Islamabad and the brigade headquarters of the Pakistan army's elite commando unit, to capture a high-value target in Abbottabad, the Pakistanis assumed it was for the seizure of Umar Patek's companions.

Once permission had been granted to the helicopters, Pakistani security forces were put on high alert in Abbottabad to provide necessary assistance to the American operation, which was led by American Navy Seals.

Limited bases were granted to the Americans in Tarbella Ghazi in 2008 under an agreement for high-profile operations. Asia Times Online broke that story of that development. (See A long, hot winter for Pakistan October 11, 2008 and The gloves are off in Pakistan September 23, 2008.)

After a 40-minute operation, the Americans had the body of Bin Laden - later buried in the Arabian Sea - and Pakistani authorities were informed. Their forces then entered the compound where Bin Laden had been found and took control.

News of Bin Laden's death broke like a bombshell among military bigwigs as well as on the political leadership. On the international diplomatic front, Pakistan has already lost its argument against allegations that it perpetuates terror. Now, militant groups are expected to turn their guns on the Pakistan state for its complicity in Bin Laden's death.

Before Bin Laden's killing, hardly 10% of pro-Taliban militants were fighting against Pakistan. That is, 90% disagreed with Pakistan's policy of aligning with the US in the "war on terror", but they chose to keep their focus on fighting foreign forces in Afghanistan. Bin Laden's death has invited the wrath of all groups.
For example, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Pakistan Taliban), immediately announced it would avenge his death and declared Pakistan the number one enemy and the US as number two. On Monday evening, a suicide attack was carried out against police in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, in which Abbottabad is located. The TTP claimed responsibility.

While all information was coming out of Washington, Pakistan - where the entire operation was conducted - behaved like an extremely terrified child and did not utter a single word. Only by noon did the Pakistani Foreign Office issue a statement that declared that the operation was exclusively conducted by American forces.

American forces claimed to have buried Bin Laden at sea so that people could not eulogize his grave and that he would not continue to be an icon of anti-Americanism. However, al-Qaeda is a completely different beast.

The world without Osama
Bin Laden, a rich Saudi prince-like figure, was in many ways the brainchild of Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Egyptian camp (See Al-Qaeda's unfinished work Asia Times Online, May 2005) to bolster a movement that in the 1990s had mostly failed and was rapidly losing popularity in the Muslim world.

When Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the September 11 mastermind, who was not an al-Qaeda member, approached Zawahiri with a plan to strike the US mainland with hijacked aircraft, Zawahiri saw a huge chance to orchestrate broader friction between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, and in the process organize anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world under a single banner. He approved the plan despite intense opposition from several top al-Qaeda commanders who thought the American reaction would not be sustainable for the Taliban in Afghanistan or for al-Qaeda.

However, Zawahiri was planning a different world after 9/11. Therefore, following the 9/11 attack and the subsequent US invasion and defeat of the Taliban, al-Qaeda migrated to Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area where it succeeded in regrouping by 2003.

That was a turning point at which time it was decided to preserve the iconic figure of Bin Laden as a jewel while Zawahiri worked on a different strategy - to engineer a new leadership of al-Qaeda.

A careful use of material and human resources and the maximum exploitation of circumstances by 2004 brought forward leaders like commander Nek Mohammad and Haji Umar and as each one of these was killed off, another would be ready to step into the position. These included Abdullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud, and now the highly effective Sirajuddin Haqqani and commander Ilyas Kashmiri.

Al-Qaeda's regrouping helped the Taliban make a comeback by 2006, at which time Bin Laden went very quiet - like a precious stone that was buried deep inside the Earth with safety and care. He didn't have much of a role in decision-making, but his name and stature often brought in money for al-Qaeda.

By 2010, the Americans came up with a formula for their withdrawal from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda began to place more emphasis on people like Haqqani and Kashmiri to replace the older generation of al-Qaeda in the action in the mountains of the tribal areas. These older men would return to the Middle East to take over the command of Arab revolts.

Under the same arrangement, Central Asian fighters in the tribal areas were asked to make preparations to set up fronts in Central Asia (see Soft Sufi, hard-rock militant Asia Times Online, January 22, 2011.)

In essence, by 2011 al-Qaeda had turned into a kind of hornet's nest capable of opening war fronts in different places at the same time, or focusing its energies on a single front. Bin Laden's killing has frozen all previous plans and according to sources in North Waziristan, schemes have morphed into two parts: immediate reaction against Pakistan and a long-term scheme against the West and India.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of forthcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban, beyond 9/11 to be published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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