By M K Bhadrakumar
IT WAS a death that could have been foretold, but if riveting high drama enveloped it when the end came for Osama bin Laden, that was largely because things became rather surreal. He was finally tracked down not in the deep ravines of Kunar that sun shies away from visiting or the inhospitable caves of the tangled Tora Bora mountains, but in the heart of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, inhabited by half- a- million people, hardly 50 kilometres away as the crow flies from the headquarters of the military establishment in Rawalpindi. That the famous fugitive sought anonymity amidst madding crowds and that his safe haven had to be Abbottabad, a brigade headquarters of the Second Division of the Northern Army Corps of the Pakistani military gave circumstances a touch of magical realism leaping out of Gabriel Marquez fiction.
But the plain truth is that bin Laden’s time was up. As Robert Fisk, the great chronicler of radical Islam, summed up, bin Laden had become a “ middleaged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history — by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East.”
Al- Qaeda is politically dead and there is no more scope for establishing an Islamic Caliphate on earth. This stunning reality needs to be assimilated as the big question is why the Pakistani military leadership decided to turn him in — and the timing of it. Everything hinges on the answer to that question.
Clearly, the Pakistani military leadership assessed that the law of diminishing returns was beginning to work. There was never doubt that bin Laden’s fate was inextricably linked to the equations between the Pakistani military and intelligence on the one side and the American counterparts. Suffice to say, Pakistani military and intelligence are adept at modulating their “working relationship” with the Americans.
As for timing, the Pakistani military estimated that doing a favourable turn to the US president Barack Obama at this precise juncture would optimise the “ quid pro quo”. The opinion polls Pakistan’s ends showed that opinion in the United States had decisively turned against the continuance of the Afghan war — and Obama’s handling of the war.
Well- informed Americans manifestly despair of the futility of the war and its financial cost and remain sceptical whether Taliban indeed pose any real threat to the US’ “homeland security”. Clearly, the raison d’etre of the Afghan war is dissipating. The Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted this in no uncertain terms in her speech at the Asia Society in February.
Paradoxically, however, bin Laden still remained a highly emotive issue for the American people. Thus, incrementally, an impasse appeared whereby the “successful” conclusion of the war would remain elusive so long as bin Laden remained at large.
The sense of frustration in Washington had lately begun eroding the US- Pakistan alliance. The impasse needed to be broken.
As regards the Pakistani military leadership, what counts most is the endgame of the war.
Pakistan has come breathtakingly close to realising its historic objective of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan. Everything now devolves upon the return and reintegration of the Taliban into mainstream Afghan national life. However, Americans are squatting right in the middle of the Pakistani path and without Washington’s consent no Afghan peace process can take off. And the Americans won’t budge unless they salvaged their part of the “ al- Qaeda deal”. In short, bin Laden became the litmus test of the trustworthiness of the Pakistani military leadership.
Today, Obama rides a wave of patriotic fervour all across America and it has interesting fallouts for his re- election bid in 2012. He hopes to announce the successful completion of the war and to begin the drawdown of troops in July. Obama quietly appreciates that the Pakistani military has taken a gamble since the al- Qaeda leader is an emotive issue for the Pakistani masses. The Pakistani military leadership, which is traditionally cautious, would have carefully weighed the pros and cons before coming to a decision that it has the wherewithal to weather the storm of public opinion if it takes a detached low- key stance and desists from crowing about its seminal role in the Abbottabad operation. Obama, of course, is only too willing to claim absolute credit for being a resolute commander- in- chief who led America to spectacular victory in an uncertain war.
Without doubt, the killing of bin Laden can be attributed to the curious convergence of US and Pakistani interests. Essentially, the two countries find themselves on the same page. Both want the war to end. If Taliban can provide an end to bloodshed, ensure “ stability” and can live with the US as a benign partner, Washington would settle for it. In this calculus, if Taliban are assured of an enduring role in Afghan national life, Pakistani objectives are realised.
Thus, the death of bin Laden and the scattering of the al- Qaeda remnants from the region arguably create a favourable atmosphere for the peace process to advance. The US and Pakistan can be expected to seek a modus vivendi that accommodates the interests of both sides. The 10- year old Afghan war is most definitely drawing to a close. But Delhi has cause to worry.
Our discourses overlook that Afghanistan is receding from the US foreign policy priorities, which have shifted to West Asia, the pivotal arena historically for American global strategies. In a manner of speaking, the Taliban question has become a sideshow and distraction for US’ regional policies. With regard to Pakistan, the US would be keen to probe how this difficult ally can be harnessed for the “ new great game” that is beginning in West Asia.
Indeed, Pakistan has a potentially key role to play in safeguarding the security of the “pro- West” regimes of the Persian Gulf region.
The Pakistani mercenaries numbering around 30,000 personnel ( including ex- servicemen) are already beefing up the security of the besieged Bahrain ruler. From the US perspective, the crunch time comes if the “ Arab spring” spreads to the strategic Persian Gulf, especially the Arabian Peninsula. In particular, if the regime in Saudi Arabia gets seriously threatened, the US will be reduced to a helpless bystander as neither it nor any of its European allies can afford to intervene militarily in the Holy Places.
But Pakistan’s huge standing army of observant Sunni Muslims can — and it always fancied itself as the Praetorian guards of the Saudi regime.
Conceivably, Saudi Arabia would feel relieved at the elimination of bin Laden at this crucial juncture and the most recent high- level exchanges indicate that Riyadh might have played an influential role to prevail on the Pakistani military leadership to get rid of the blessed nuisance of the al- Qaeda remnants so that life moves on. What suits the US and Saudi Arabia best is to polarise Persian Gulf between the camps of Salafism and resurgent Shi’ism. The US is desperately looking for ways and means of mitigating Israel’s regional isolation amidst the upheaval in the Middle East and would rather have “ regime changes” at this point confined to Syria and Iran.
But then, the march of history is inexorable and the epochal struggle for the making of the “new Middle East” has only begun.
Source: Mail Today