By Ernest Corea
WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) – Twenty-four hours do make a difference. Two events that followed each other on a weekend in which April gave way to May, demonstrated the point. From one day to another, the focus of much public attention moved from fun and frivolity here to a dramatic military operation in Pakistan that ended the life of a feared, “most wanted” terrorist leader.
On Saturday, April 30, local journalists, their celebrity companions, and politicians were all glitz and glitter, supported by spirituous sustenance, at the annual festivities of the White House Correspondents Association.
Chief Guest President Barack Obama, who delivered a scintillating after-dinner speech, looked on with approval, occasionally flashing his trademark smile, as the evening’s star act, Seth Myers of the award winning television program, Saturday Night Live, had his audience erupt in waves of laughter.
Myers skewered many targets including Obama. His most damning zings, however, were directed at businessman turned entertainer turned aspiring presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Said Myers: “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, because I just assumed that he was running as a joke.”
On the night of May 1, some twenty-fours later, Obama stood before a microphone in the East Room of the White House and announced that Osama bin Laden was dead. No joke, that.
In his late night address that was widely televised, broadcast by radio, and later disseminated via the Internet and the print media, Obama said “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
Close to a decade after a meticulously planned terrorist attack killed some 3,000 people drawn from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds, the man responsible for that tragedy was no more.
He was killed in a firefight between himself and his bodyguards and an elite group of Navy Seals. The latter had trained for months for the operation, using a mock-up of the compound in which Osama bin Laden was “hiding in plain sight” – not in a cave but in a highly visible urban residence.
Think back to the attacks that mesmerised the world some 10 years ago and are together now universally referred to in the shorthand “9/11″. Recall that in a televised message some hours after those attacks Osama bin Laden acknowledged ownership of the deathly attacks and engaged in crude gloating.
Whatever Obama’s innermost feelings might have been when he announced the end of bin Laden, there was not a hint of gloating in his words. He was sombre and statesmanlike, as befitted the moment.
Obama also made it clear that the operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, should not be misconstrued as part of a war between the U.S. and Islam: “….we must also reaffirm that the United States is not – and never will be – at war with Islam…… Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own…..”
In Washington, it has been said, the ship of state leaks from the top. This is a city of leaks, and one of the achievements of those who planned, managed, led, and carried out the attack on bin Laden’s high security compound is that nothing leaked.
That achievement is all the greater because planning actually began two years ago. Shortly after taking office in 2009, Obama “directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network,” Obama has since acknowledged. The CIA was given 30 days to come up with a plan. It did.
What followed, from planning to execution, the details of which are being shared with the public after the event by White House officials, reads like a combination of science fiction and a James Bond thriller.
A painstaking and, as it turned out, successful intelligence gathering operation persuaded Obama and others that bin Laden was very likely to be the “high value target” hiding in the fortified compound in the garrison town of Abbottobad.
As with all intelligence, however, certainty is impossible. In deciding to approve the operation and set it in motion, Obama took a great political risk. Failure would have destroyed the lives of the men he sent into the operation, shattered bilateral relations with Pakistan, made a laughing stock of the U.S., and ended his own political career.
It was his “gutsiest decision,” said John Brennan, the White House special adviser on homeland security and counter terrorism. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concurred.
And, in a bravura ending to the operation, Obama and his aides sat in seclusion in the White House watching the operation unfold in real time. The Navy seals carried electronic equipment that made this possible.
Crowds erupted on the streets of New York, where the highest number of 9/11 deaths was recorded, and in Washington neighbourhoods close to the White House.
Outside the U.S., these “celebrations” have already been viewed as an unseemly outburst of triumphalism. It is difficult to describe to anybody who was not in the U.S. on 9/11 the anguish and anger evoked by those attacks and wanton killings. The Abbottabad operation to a large extent wiped out those feelings; hence, the outpouring of what can only be described as pride and joy.
Moreover, nobody felt a greater sense of relief and closure, than family members of those who died on 9/11.
In different parts of the U.S., spokespersons for individual families or groups expressed the same or similar sentiments. They continued to mourn the loss of their loved ones who were killed. The death of bin Laden cannot bring them back to life. They felt a sense of relief, and feelings bordering on elation, however, when they learned that the man who caused all those deaths had himself been killed.
The elation of the moment will turn into an obnoxious form of triumphalism if it endures. There is also the danger that triumphalism can take dangerously divisive turns. All indications at the time of writing are that the celebratory mood is already receding, if it has not receded. There is much more to think about now, including the precarious state of the economy and the joblessness that afflicts so many households.
There is also much to think about, and many questions to be asked and answered, about where Pakistan stands in relation to al Qaeda. For it is a fact that the U.S. intelligence and military authorities found it prudent and appropriate to inform Pakistan about the operation to capture or take out bin Laden only after the fact.
Pakistan’s President Zardari, in an op-ed published by the Washington Post on May 3 said that “Pakistan has paid an enormous price for its stand against terrorism.” That “defence” simply begs the question: Is it credible to believe that the bin Laden compound could have been constructed and existed for six years but went completed unnoticed by Pakistani officialdom?
Abbottabad is located about an hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital, and close to a prestigious military academy. The area is home to numerous retired military folk. The bin Laden refuge in Abbottabad is said to have been eight times the size of neighbouring houses. Its walls were higher than others, and were topped with a wire fence. The occupants did not put their trash out for collection as others did but burnt it within the compound. The refuge had hardly any visitors, no phone connection. All this went unnoticed?
A building does not come into existence in a neighbourhood by an “act of God”. Ownership of the land and the building surely had to be registered. Builders can be traced and through them the identity of whoever it was that paid for the construction can be established.
At the very least, the Pakistan Government as well as it military and intelligence services owe it to the U.S. which has been a generous benefactor to get at these details and make them known.
PERFIDY OR STUPIDITY
The reticence, so far, of the Pakistani authorities has already caused John Brennan to say (as quoted in the Washington Post): “I think it’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in Pakistan that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time.” Others will ask: Were Pakistani officials perfidious or stupid?
The next round of the Strategic Dialogue between Pakistan and the U.S. is scheduled to take place at the end of May in Islamabad. The U.S. side is entitled to expect answers to the numerous questions that linger over Abbottabad.
Pakistani representatives will no doubt register their complaint that their air space was invaded by the U.S. and that their sovereignty thereby challenged and eroded. Nobody can say they were not warned.
During his election campaign, Obama said that if he was convinced that al Qaeda was established within Pakistan and the Pakistani authorities were not taking them out, he would send U.S. forces into that country to do the job. His opponents jumped all over him, but he has now remained true to that warning.
The broader issue of the shape that Pakistani-U.S. relations must take in their mutual interest remains to be addressed.
INTO THE FUTURE
The end of bin Laden does not mean the end of terrorism or of al Qaeda itself. He will be replaced, and the many franchises that have sprung up in Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia will continue to function, as they have done before, without central direction.
In the short term, it is likely that some of these groups will attempt to hit American targets as revenge for bin Laden’s death.
Over the long term, the anger which bin Laden was able to channel and mobilise for vicious and wanton violence will abate and end only when the perceived injustices that fuel such anger have ended. That will be a long-term program but not one that should be delayed. A good place to start would be Palestine. (IDN-InDepthNews/03.05.2011)
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.