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The Post Osama Possibilities

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 06, 2011

    US president Barak Obama announced late last Sunday that Osama Bin laden was killed in an operation by a special forces team, now identified as navy SEALS, in Abbottabad a mere 50 km north of Islamabad. While Obama specifically said that no other forces were involved, Pakistan said there was cooperation with US forces. Either of them has to be wrong. Pakistan is either lying or is simply incompetent to defend its air space.

    This raises a number of questions. Why did the US and Pakistani establishments issue the two contrary statements? How did the US forces get to the site without the knowledge and permission of the Pakistan military? How did they hide the progress of their five-year long investigation? How did they keep a watch on the safe house in Abbottabad without the ISI’s knowledge? There is obviously much more than meets the eye.

    How did the US helicopters come all the way from Jalalabad to Abbottabad, a distance of about 200 km over hilly terrain without being detected by the Pakistani air defence radars? Most amazingly, these helicopters also returned safely back to their base. Surely, after all the noise and excitement of the shooting in close vicinity of inhabited areas and the fact that the Pakistani security forces had cordoned off the OBL hide-out, means that Pakistan would/could have tried to intercept the helicopters at least on their way back. There are some reports that these were the ‘ultra-secret’ versions of AH-60 Black Hawk which has advanced stealth features including noise suppression, and that is the reason why these were not detected by Pakistani radars. It is possible that the Pakistani radars were off the air or were jammed by the Americans. The latter, however, is unlikely as the very act of jamming would have warned the Pakistanis of a serious threat. It is also possible that the Pakistan’s radars that are deployed along its western borders are not quite state-of-the-art. Pakistan’s claims of scrambling two F-16 fighters also do not appear credible. Since Pakistan has said that it mistook the helicopter activity as emanating from India, the fighters might have been sent in the wrong direction. In any case, intercepting a stealthy chopper in the hills on a dark night was not exactly easy. Finally, the Pakistan Army might have known about it but did not want to acknowledge its association with the US military for fear of reprisals by the Taliban. Some also wonder why Gen. Patraeus secretly visited Chaklala in the week prior to this major US operation.

    It is now evident that OBL lived in Abbottabad for nearly six years with minimal security outside his house, indicating that the Pakistan Army and the ISI were supremely confident that together they had given the fugitive full and impregnable defence by way of plain clothes security personnel so as to not arouse any suspicion. ISI not knowing OBL’s whereabouts is stretching the imagination too far.

    The US will of course not punish the ISI too severely as it still needs the ISI and Pakistan Army support, but will increasingly demand tougher and credible action against the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Queta Shura. One should not be surprised if the US intensifies its drone attacks against these as yet untouched targets. The US would much rather have a happy Karzai at the helm in Afghanistan than waste precious time, lives, resources and effort to appease the Pakistan Army and the ISI.

    The elimination of OBL might not accelerate US withdrawal from Afghanistan as he was the main target of US attack against that country in October 2001, but in all probability this marks the beginning of the end of active US military presence in Afghanistan. To be sure, the US would be wary of leaving too many things in the care of Pakistan. It may keep a sizeable military presence to oversee the operations. The chances of the ‘good’ Taliban becoming part of the ruling coalition in Afghanistan are not so bright now. A diplomatic surge is unlikely to succeed unless there are some tangible victories on ground against these known villains. India must now take a more active stand in supporting an India-friendly government in Kabul and give it the support that it needs.

    Pakistan might now up the ante and provoke India into some sort of strong verbal response or even a military reaction so as to turn the attention of the US and the international community to Kashmir and the old bogey of an imagined Indian threat.

    As the proverbial cat with nine lives, Pakistan will bounce back even if it were required to go down on bended knees to obtain US forgiveness. All this drama about the violation of its sovereignty is just that. Pakistan has lived with increasingly curtailed freedom of action for decades but has also retained its nuisance value. It may once again try to disrupt the US logistical convoy route through Baluchistan by inciting Taliban insurgents, but this time the US might not be as indulgent as before. Pakistan is and has always been a client state and does not really mind that so long as it can somehow retain a rough military parity with its archenemy, India. Pakistan has still not met India’s demand to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 to book and is unlikely to do that in the near future. It is time India told the world that its patience must not be taken for granted.

    Eliminating Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan’s backyard was no mean achievement. It shows the persistent surveillance and perseverance of the US intelligence agencies and their dogged determination. This gives hope that the US will show equal alacrity and resolve if and when the need arises to take out Pakistani nuclear weapons. The US can now feel more confident to do that in the event of an emergency such as a serious break down of law and order or a general collapse of the administration in Pakistan. Locating them should not be a major problem as satellite surveillance today is quite advanced and provides high resolution imagery. For example, in the recent tragic accident in India’s Arunachal Pradesh, ISRO is said to have pin-pointed some metal parts as possible accident sites at eight different locations in thickly forested mountainous areas. The US capability in this field is far more credible and hence such a thing is not beyond the realm of possibility.

    India too can now feel more confident to consider a wider array of diplomatic and other choices in the event of Pakistani mischief in the future. It is too early to give a definitive verdict on the Pakistan’s military preparedness, but one can safely state that there is much bluff and bluster behind Pakistan’s boastful claims about its military capabilities.

    Barring a few die-hard radicals and separatists no one in India has shed tears for OBL, al Qaeda or Pakistan. The Indian leadership need not worry too much about hurting the feelings of their friends in the Middle East. India should in fact intensify its naval presence in the Western Indian Ocean waters off the Horn of Africa and take more proactive steps to curb piracy and give a sense of security to the smaller countries of the region even if it has to expend more effort and resources. Finally, terrorism is not about to disappear from the scene. Things might get worse before they become better. The remnants of al Qaeda will undoubtedly try to stage spectacular strikes against soft targets. India has no option but to remain alert.