Blood on the tracks - Mahir Ali - Wednesday 4th May 2011

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NOTWITHSTANDING the litany of denials over the years from Pakistani political and military leaders alike, it turned out this week that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan after all.
And not in North or South Waziristan or any other tribal territory, but comfortably ensconced in the neighbourhood of the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, on the outskirts of the pleasant hill station of Abbottabad, within easy reach of the federal capital. Oh Abbottabad, we are leaving you now
“ To your natural beauty do I bow
Perhaps your wind`s sound will never reach my air
My gift for you is a few sad tears…”
These verses are attributed to the man who founded the city in the mid-19th century as the capital of Hazara district, Major James Abbott, presumably more competent as an army officer than as a poet. It is unlikely that any such thoughts ran through Bin Laden`s mind in the moments before he saw the last of Abbottabad.
The element of surprise was crucial to the US special forces operation that sealed his fate. It was a comprehensively planned affair rather than a spur-of-the-moment attack: the trusted Bin Laden courier, unnamed at this point, who proved to be the key to unlocking the mystery of the Al Qaeda chief`s whereabouts was apparently tracked for years, and the compound had been under surveillance for months.
Even so, the evidence that it housed Bin Laden was circumstantial: the raid was evidently based on the strong suspicion, rather than the certainty, that the Pimpernel who had successfully eluded his enemies for nearly a decade would be found therein.Small wonder, then, that Barack Obama and his national security team, who followed the operation in real time from the White House Situation Room, were mightily relieved when it yielded the desired result. As a consequence, Bin Laden now sleeps with the fishes, in Godfatherly parlance, his mortal remains having reportedly been consigned to a watery grave.
It is possible that sanitised footage of the operation will surface in due course, but it won`t help to settle the most crucial questions that have arisen in the wake of the dramatic events near Abbottabad.
Arguably, foremost among these is whether elements in Pakistan`s military intelligence, or the broader army, were aware of Bin Laden`s presence in the country; conjectural estimates of his sojourn in Kakul range from a few days to several years.
Not surprisingly, voices in the US have already begun demanding that this aspect of the scenario be fully investigated. It`s hardly an unfair demand, and it comes in the wake of WikiLeaks revelations about the CIA viewing Pakistan`s ISI as effectively a terrorist organisation.
Often enough the same charge can be flung at the CIA, of course. It could also reasonably be argued, though, that Al Qaeda`s antics played a significant role in facilitating the impunity of the CIA and the Pentagon. Who can seriously doubt, for instance, that Bin Laden and his cohorts provided an ideal focus for the US just as it was casting about for a new foe in the wake of the Soviet Union`s demise?
That the US and its underlings were on the same side as Bin Laden and his small group of followers in the crusade against communism is a much-remarked-upon historical irony, and those who vehemently deny that the CIA directly assisted Bin Laden`s group often conveniently ignore the fact that numerous recipients of American largesse and military training — the Hekmatyars and Haqqanis of this world — also eventually fell in with the Taliban, who provided a sanctuary for Bin Laden`s forces.
What`s more, a fantastical notion of the role of Arab recruits to the jihad in bringing the Soviets to their knees enabled Bin Laden to assume he could provide the same service vis-à-vis the US of A.
But then, this sordid saga overflows with ironies — it would take a fairly voluminous tome to list them all. Perhaps what matters most of all is whether the targeting of Osama bin Laden at this juncture serves more than a symbolic purpose for the US.
Back in the late 1990s, before he was cast as the personification of evil, the Al Qaeda chief was perceived chiefly as a financier of Islamist terrorist operations. After the mass atrocities perpetrated on Sept 11, 2001, when the Taliban regime in Kabul demanded proof of Bin Laden`s complicity as a prerequisite for handing him over, a special forces strike of the sort carried out in Abbottabad this week could conceivably have beheaded Al Qaeda.
Instead, a full-fledged military assault was unleashed — and Bin Laden was able to escape from Tora Bora. His operational role in subsequent terrorist attacks has been dubious. His death clearly does not spell an end to the threats posed by Islamist violence.
Al Qaeda may have expanded into a multinational with largely autonomous franchises in various parts of the world — thanks in large part to the American reaction to 9/11, and particularly the gratuitous invasion of Iraq — but its core appears to have remained small.
This week`s decapitation could lead to a short-term surge in retaliatory attacks, but in the longer run the impact of Bin Laden`s death may not register on the Richter scale.
This year`s popular surge across much of the Arab world can be interpreted as a kind of defeat both for Al Qaeda and for Washington: after all, it was green-lit neither by the sad example of Iraq nor by the prospect of international jihad. As a signpost for the future, it seems considerably more valuable than anything the Americans or the Bin Ladenites had to offer. n
Whether Osama bin Laden`s removal from the realm of the living to the ocean of the dead makes for a substantially better or safer world remains to be seen. He certainly deserves no tears. The blood on his hands was all too real. But it does rather pale in comparison with the blood on the hands of successive US commanders-in-chief. Hence, the claim that `justice has been done` rings only partially true.

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