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Death of Osama bin Laden – the fallouts

May 2, 2011

Today, early in the morning as I logged on to my Twitter account there was a tweet from Washington Post that President Barack Obama was to make a statement shortly. This intrigued me as it was still a Sunday in the US and such announcements are not made at such late hour. I switched on the TV and CNN anchor John King and others were discussing that news was filtering out from the White House that Osama bin Laden had been killed. This was surely a big story and from what we reckon this one event in recent history will have wide ranging repercussions.

President Barack Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden was killed in a special-forces operation conducted by the United States military in a small town called Abbottabad, 200 miles from Islamabad. Abbottabad is a military township with an old fort used by the British for their garrisons. It has a military school and is teeming with military personnel of the Pakistan army. It appears that Osama bin Laden was living in a bungalow with high walls, not too far from this military school, which was built at least 5-6 years ago. President Obama mentioned in his statement that he got reports of Osama’s possible hideout in August last year. It clearly means that Osama had been living there for the past year or so if not for all of the last six years since the mansion was first built. Was the million dollar mansion specially built for Osama bin Laden by the Pakistan establishment? President Obama mentioned that US forces had conducted an operation, which means that this was not a joint US-Pak effort. However, Shuja Pasha the ISI chief has commented that it was a joint operation. President Obama only mentioned Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari thanking him and did not mention anyone else. Clearly all those conjectures about Osama hiding in the tribal areas were unfounded. By all accounts, Osama was ensconced in the lap of Pakistan military and felt safe there.

With the death of Osama bin Laden an unholy chapter has ended. The man who was synonymous with al-Qaeda and terror is no more. There is a sense of relief in the western world and there are people celebrating in the streets of New York and Washington DC. The man behind 9/11 attacks on the US has been eliminated and there is jubilation among ordinary Americans. President Obama mentioned that the US was not in fight with Islam as had George W. Bush after 9/11. But the celebrations will raise the hackles of radicals among Muslims around the world. And that could be dangerous.

I guess Obama understood right at the outset that to get Osama was a matter of his political survival. This is the kind of shot in the arm that his faltering presidency needed. There were people still curious about his antecedents –where has this man, Barack Obama come from, they asked? Some more vociferous among the radicals wanted to know whether Barack Obama was born in America. Men like Donald Trump almost called him names. His government had all but stopped functioning. The passage of the budget was a last minute rescue mission by the president who gave his adversaries more than he had bargained for. Obama was in a political mess domestically unmindful of how well he had managed his foreign relations especially his resoundingly successful trip to India. The man was being pushed around. And suddenly all this will change.

Barack Obama has with one stroke not only resurrected his presidency but now there will be people ready to listen to him even about his health care plan and other domestic agenda that were dear to him. The economy is rebounding and the unemployment rate has come down to around 8%. This will further boost his chances.  He had already thrown his hat in the ring for a second term. Now it seems his re-election prospects are very high. The public perception has changed and Gallup polls will show a marked increase in approval ratings.

The question is as to what effect the elimination of Osama bin Laden has on the war on terror. Will it mean a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan? Will it mean a swift decrease of troops from Af-Pak region? President Obama mentioned that the threat from al-Qaeda has not been totally eliminated with the death of Osama bin Laden. Clearly there are strategic interests that will not go away with the death of the head of the al-Qaeda. I guess, the earlier administration was not as keen on getting Osama as this enabled west to keep a foot in the strategically important Afghanistan. With the death of Osama the west will have to find other reasons to keep their presence in Afghanistan.  For Obama it was different. Obama was smart enough to realize that his one passport to approval from the vast doubting majority was if he got Osama dead or alive, more dead than alive. It took the US administration two years to hunt down the man and to eliminate him. Obama will finally find approval from his fellow Americans, something that was missing from his presidency right after he took office.

For Pakistan it is an embarrassment that Osama bin laden was found and killed in the garrison town of Abbotabad. It is true that Pakistanis have this penchant of turning the most unfavorable situation to their advantage. But to turn this one around will take quite some doing, notwithstanding what Shuja Pasha is saying. It should be clear now to the world that it is Pakistan that is the refuge for most terrorists. New Delhi took no time in pointing out that what India has been saying for long has come true. That most terrorists find refuge in Pakistan and that Pakistan is the epicenter of world terrorism. This will also mean that world will get tougher with Pakistan and the needle of suspicion will always point towards Islamabad. In that this has been a blow to Pakistan’s claim to being a partner in the war on terror.

Does this mean an end to the ‘war on terror’? It is premature to say anything at this point in time. Western leaders are still trying to grapple with the news and trying to figure out as to how the politics of the region will play out in the immediate future. David Cameron welcomed the death of Osama with a ‘sense of relief’ as he put it. Other world leaders have yet to react to the news. Be as it may, there will be hardly any prominent leader that will react otherwise. But that does not mean that they will not reset their policies in the region. Each nation will have to do a rethink about their position in the US war on terror especially with regards to the Af-Pak region.

Osama bin Laden may have been a hero of the Muslims the world over but that does not mean that he was the darling of governments of Muslim nations. There will be grief and a sense of loss among majority of Muslims around the world. Osama bin Laden was that ghost like figure who was always a step ahead of his western adversaries. He was that hero who had taken on the mighty west and kept hitting them as and when he wished. With his death there will be a sense of loss and of defeat.  The celebrations in the US will only add to their sense of loss. For Americans, they will be back to claiming the might of the US and how they are world leaders. The self esteem of the ordinary American will go up a few notches and that feel good factor may translate into votes for the Democrats in the 2012 presidential elections.

In the short run, one can expect more terror attacks around the world. However there is no denying that the death of Osama bin Laden is a body blow to terrorism the world over. This should bring about world peace in the medium and long term.

Be as it may, there is little doubt that the death of Osama bin Laden is a big event in modern history. It will be interesting to see as to how Pakistan will extricate itself from the uncomfortable deductions that the world is naturally going to make from CIA led special forces operations in Abbotabad that killed Osama bin Laden. There is a sense of wonderment as to what ‘deal’ was struck between some in Pakistani establishment and Americans especially after the wheeling and dealing that went on for release of Raymond Davis. That President Obama pointedly thanked President Asif Ali Zardari has also not been missed either. It has also come to notice that Americans used Pakistani facilities to launch this operation in Abbottabad and the helicopters used flew in from within Pakistan. It will be interesting to see what other details come out in the coming weeks about the death of Osama bin Laden.

The Controversy: There is a raging debate going on as to whether Pakistan authorities knew about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. There are those that point out that such an operation deep inside Pakistan could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the ISI and Pakistan military. However, President Obama clearly stated that it was an American operation carried out by some 40 American Navy Seals. Pakistan commentators are hailing this as another example of close US-Pakistan cooperation and go on to say that this shows Pakistan’s resolve to fight terrorism.

The truth as it seems is that this was indeed an American operation. They had not told anyone in the Pakistan establishment. It is also true that Washington had stopped keeping Islamabad in the know about drone attacks for quite some time now. They realized that whenever they informed the Pakistanis they could seldom hit the target. Clearly, Pakistan military and ISI would sound out the target and they would flee. What is true for drone strikes is true for the bin Laden operations. The US knew that were they to inform the Pakistan establishment they would never succeed in their mission. This was an American strike and an American operation alone.

The reason why President Obama thanked President Zardari could have been that the Americans may have asked the Pakistan president to help in logistical support and cordoning off of the area at the time of the attack. I would not be surprised if Zardari would also have been in the dark about the real purpose of the American operation. I am not sure the president knew about Osama’s whereabouts as the ISI and the army would not share such sensitive information with the president. Finally I will not be surprised if the president quoted his price for his ‘cooperation’. Only now, perhaps does the man realize what the Americans were really up to. But now, its too late.

There is a bit of confusion as to how the operation was conducted. Apparently the four US helicopters flew in from Afghanistan while Pakistan army radars were jammed. They conducted the operation and flew back. It also appears that these choppers were modified for this operation. One critical modification could have been that the gas tanks may have been given increased fuel capacity. The report that they flew in from a Pakistan military base as was reported by Aaj TV of Pakistan is not quite correct.

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