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Pakistan, US and Osama bin Laden

May 3, 2011

KGS Nightwatch, 2 May 2011: Bin Laden and a son are dead, killed in a firefight by US Navy SEALS carried in two helicopters to Abbottabad, Pakistan, just 35 miles north of Islamabad. The US commandos took custody of his body to prove he is dead and got away safely.

News services quoted unidentified US officials that the body was prepared for burial according to the Muslim ritual. Readers might wonder who gave such an order and why.

The Abbottabad location is important for two reasons. Bin Laden could not have lived in a compound in Abbottabad without official Pakistani government sustenance. Abbottabad is an upscale area and a garrison town, but not so large as to be impersonal. Bin Laden was living in protected luxury. Many people had to know that and probably will come forward in a little time.

On 7 December 2001, Bin Laden escaped from the tunnels in Tora Bora, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, with the help of a local warlord named Hazrat Ali, who betrayed US forces who had hired him to help capture bin Laden and is now a member of the Afghan Parliament for Nangarhar. Bin Laden and his gang crossed the Tora Bora mountains to Parachinar, Pakistan, where a Pakistan Army brigade was deployed to ensure his capture if he crossed the border. They failed, of course. He headed east to Kohat, another Army garrison town and disappeared.

The distance from Kohat to Abbottabad is several hundred kilometers by road, but the two towns are part of the Pakistan Army network of garrison towns in the northwest. Bin laden reportedly moved around in the northwest,  but one inference is that bin Laden has been in the safe keeping of the Pakistan Army for a decade. The news reports suggest the compound was specially built for him and his enterprise, which had to have been subsidized by Pakistan and, through Pakistan, by US aid to Pakistan. 

Secondly, his compound could not have been attacked from Afghanistan, him killed and his body taken by US Navy SEALs flying US helicopters so close to Islamabad without official Pakistani government cooperation. The US insisted Pakistan played no part in the operation and that the team flew from Afghanistan. That clearly is a cover story for Pakistani public consumption to try to avert overwhelming anti-Pakistan and anti-US demonstrations, which are probably inevitable in any event.

Abottabad is not some remote village on the border. It is a large town in eastern Pakistan, on the main road to Kargil and the north as well as to Muzaffarabad and Pakistani Kashmir to the east. It is northeast – towards India – of Islamabad and within the Pakistan air defense intercept zone for the national capital which is protected by the Pakistani integrated air defense system. Nothing can fly in that region without detection and without permission from the Pakistan Air Force, even from Afghanistan.

The conclusion is inescapable that the Pakistan Army protected bin Laden and recently decided to give him up, rather than sacrifice the Army’s relationship with the US. The terms are not known as yet, but there certainly is a trade in which bin Laden was sacrificed. The trade might involve an end to US drone attacks across the border, which humiliate the Pakistan Army, or a new coordination regime for drone attacks into Pakistan.

Bin Laden was a hero in Pakistan. He stood up to the United States and lived …for ten years. Readers should expect an enormous backlash against Americans.

If the Pakistan civilian government survives, it will be because of the cover story that the US acted unilaterally. If the cover story works, on the surface, the US and Pakistani relationship will appear in the international media to take a nose dive. That will not be the truth, though few Pakistanis will know the truth. If the cover story is not believed, the government will not likely survive. There will be investigations by the National Assembly.

One lesson of analysis of terrorist behavior is that terrorists are most vulnerable when they move about. A month or so ago, Asia Times online published a report about bin Laden’s movements in the border regions. Those reports look credible. Abottabad has good access to the western border and bin Laden had Pakistani protection. Movement to the border would have posed no major problems, but movement always increases the risk of detection.

Bin Laden was killed with two couriers, whose fate is not reported. The point is that this operation had to have inside help. The increased contacts and movements woould have increased the circle of people who knew bin Laden’s location and, thus, the likelihood of a serious security breach, especially by low-paid staff.

A final point is that the operation appears to have been a success primarily of human source intelligence and special forces operations, not the drone program, though every asset probably had some role. Bin Laden’s mansion compound was  too near Islamabad for any armed drone attacks.

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