Hunting down Geronimo

The Abbottabad raid and its implications

Now, there can be very little doubt over whether the Pakistani military leadership, Generals Ashfaq Kayani and Shuja Pasha were aware of where Osama bin Laden was hidden. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence is competent enough for this. Usually, top leaders have “plausible deniability” and can claim that they didn’t know what their organisations were up to. In this case, General Kayani was ISI chief at the time Mr bin Laden supposedly moved to Abbottabad. The general’s denials are not plausible.

But what about the operation to get bin Laden? What role might the Pakistani military have played here? There are multiple possible explanations. Here are the three most interesting ones: One, it was, as the Obama administration claims, carried out unilaterally by the United States, without informing the Pakistanis. Two, it was orchestrated by the Pakistani military establishment as a card in the endgame of the war in Afghanistan. Or three: it was an outcome of an ongoing power struggle among various sections of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

Image: Swanksalot

Let’s take the first of these explanations. It is possible that a fortunate combination of US technology and Pakistani incompetence allowed such a daring raid to take place. Further, it is unlikely that President Obama would risk lying about an historic event of this nature. However, believing this account requires you to believe that the Pakistani armed forces are so incompetent as to miss four helicopters flying back and forth across the breadth of their territory. The Pakistani air force claimed that its West-facing radars were not operational. This stretches credulity because there’s a war along the Durand line with fighter planes, drones and choppers in regular use.

Also given that the biggest risk from such surprise missions is that the Pakistanis might mistake it for an Indian attack and react accordingly, Washington might — and should — have wanted to keep the Pakistanis informed.

So, we come to the second explanation. That the Pakistani military leadership was on board. In fact, they might have given up Mr bin Laden as it suits their interests at this time. President Obama can declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan. The Americans will have to rely on Pakistan to ensure that the withdrawal is bloodless during an election year in the United States.

This is plausible. Contrary to popular imagination, it might have been done subtly. A gentle lowering of guard around Osama, a little clue here and there, and the US intelligence would catch up…it would only be a matter of time. Better still, US officials might even believe that they did it on their own.

The biggest argument against this hypothesis is that the military wouldn’t have let go in Abbottabad. This is far too embarrassing for them. Then again other al-Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Bin Alshibh were also captured in Pakistani cities. Another argument is that it was a high-stakes gamble: US actions can’t be predicted and might backfire on Pakistan.

Let’s consider a third explanation: that someone from within the military-jihadi complex tipped off the United States about Mr bin Laden’s location to undermine Generals Kayani and Pasha. I’ve called this the Musharraf’s Musharraf effect: the military-jihadi complex is not monolithic. When Musharraf was negotiating with India, he was being undermined in Pakistan by factions of the army establishment, not least with respect to the Lal Masjid confrontation.The same might be happening with General Kayani. When Kayani got an extension as army chief, he superseded all 24 lieutenant-generals and many major-generals, all of who missed their chance of becoming the army chief.

A general who gets an extension is like a blockage in a sewage pipe. If the blockage is not cleared, the pipe will burst. There’s always more sewage, pressure builds up relentlessly and no one wants the sewage pipe to burst. So it is the blockage that is cleared.

Whatever might be the case, some things are likely:

First, the United States will further embarrass the Pakistani military establishment and then use the embarrassment to coerce the Pakistanis into co-operating. It is likely to do this because there is only so much appetite any US president has to get into a fight with a nuclear armed state that is so violently anti-American.

Second, Pakistan will play along until things cool down, and then manage to wag the dog. This happened during General Zia-ul-Haq’s time and also during General Musharraf’s time.

Third, unless the United States and Iran patch up, Pakistan—supported by China—will dominate Afghanistan through its proxies.

Fourth, jihadi groups, flush with what they see as victory over another superpower will turn East towards India. Even if General Kayani or his successor is not so inclined, what is he going to do with hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate, violent, radicalised young men? In the absence of a deradicalisation and demobilisation programme, the militants will target India.

Unlike the 1990s, however, India is better prepared: in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-infiltration. Internationally, public opinion is set against jihadi terrorism. Nevertheless, the threat exists because swathes of Pakistani territory might come under the sway of “non-state” actors, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, much like the Hizbollah does in Lebabon.

What should India do? At home, there must be a greater urgency towards addressing the challenges in Kashmir. With respect to Pakistan, New Delhi must make a strategic commitment to a policy of containing the military-jihadi complex. This involves leveraging on India’s own growing relations with the United States, China and Saudi Arabia to increase pressure on the complex. Finally, New Delhi must attempt to bring US and Iran together—this is one of the biggest prizes for Indian diplomacy in the contemporary times.