Acorn | INILive Pilot: Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India

A live, online interactive programme on strategic affairs, public policy and governance

Here’s the recording of today’s INILive pilot.

Update: Edited transcript of the initial remarks:

In today’s programme I will analyse the issues related to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan last week. I will also try to address some of your questions and comments. Today, you can interact with me over twitter, using the hashtag #inilive

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

But what about the operation to get bin Laden? What role might the Pakistani military have played here? There can be many explanations. Let’s talk about the three most interesting ones:

One, it was, as the Obama Adm 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. Three, and it was an outcome of an ongoing power struggle among various sections of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

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. Also, it is unlikely that President Obama would risk lying about an historic event of this nature.

But 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. PAF said 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 Osama 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. The US would 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. But then, other al-Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Bin Alshibh were also captured in Pakistani cities. The other argument is that it was a high-stakes gamble: US actions can’t be predicted and might backfire on Pakistan. Then again, Pakistani M does risk well.

Let’s consider a third explanation: that someone from within the military-jihadi complex ratted on Osama 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…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 superceded all 24 Lt Gens and many Maj Gens, who did not have a chance to become 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. Not even US officials. So it is the blockage that is cleared.

So which one is it? Even within Takshashila, opinion is split. In my own opinion — biased, because I believe that the military-jihadi complex is the real problem — it is a risky, but brilliant move by the Pakistani army to get into a favourable position in the Afghan endgame.

But whatever might be the case, some things are likely:

First, the United States will further embarrass the Pak Mil 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 also virulently anti-American

Second, Pakistan will play along until things cool down, and then manage to wag the dog. This happened during Zia’s time and also during 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 Kayani or someone else wants to, what is he going to do with hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate, violent, radicalised young men? So they will move East.

But unlike the 1990s, India is better prepared: in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-infiltration. Internationally, public opinion is set against jihadi terrorism…no sympathies other than perhaps from China. Nevertheless, the threat exists because swathes of Pakistani territory might come under the sway of “non-state” actors, like Lashkar-e-Taiba. I hate to call this the Hizbollah effect.

What should India do? There must be a greater urgency towards addressing the challenges in Kashmir. Containing the military-jihadi complex is crucial. It must not be allowed to be indulged by the United States, China and Saudi Arabia. Finally, New Delhi must bring US and Iran together—this is a big prize for Indian diplomacy..but need boldness of vision.


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.