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On Pakistan’s Osama bin Laden report

Nolnah’s Razor: Ascribing incompetence to that which can be adequately explained by malice.

The report of the Abbottabad Commission, which was set up to investigate the May 2011 raid by U.S. special forces that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden and his couriers, was “obtained” and published online by al-Jazeera today.  News reports tell us that the 337-page report makes “scathing reading.”

It attributes “culpable negligence and incompetence at almost all levels of government” in Pakistan’s apparent inability to identify that bin Laden was living in a villa located less than a mile away from the Kakul military academy for at least five years and its inability to detect the special forces contingent that traveled from Jalalabad, Afghanistan to Abbottabad to execute the mission to kill or capture bin Laden.

There are a few ways to look at the content and timing of the “leaked” report.  First, the report may be scathing in its criticism of government incompetence, but it barely entertains the possibility that official connivance played a role in bin Laden’s ability to evade U.S. pursuit for ten years.  Official denials don’t really mean much under the circumstances.  For years, Pakistani leaders claimed that bin Laden wasn’t in their country.  Gen. Musharraf claimed bin Laden was dead in 2002.

Pakistan has also, for years, denied that Mullah Omar was living in Pakistan.  Yet, multiple reports suggest that he is living in Quetta and under the protection of the ISI.  The truth will most likely be revealed once the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan in 2014, following which Mullah Omar will emerge triumphantly from parts unknown.

Of course, most people in India are accustomed to hearing how persons of interest to them — Dawood Ibrahim, for example — are most certainly not living in Pakistan.  For those of us on this side of the barbed-wire fence, the incompetence defense stretches credulity.

There are other interesting parts to the report.  On page 337, it concludes (emphasis added):

But finally, no honest assessment of the situation can escape the conclusion that those individuals who wielded primary authority and influence in national decision making bear the primary responsibility for creating the national circumstances and environment in which the May 2, 2011 incident occurred.  It is unnecessary to specifically name them because it is obvious who they are.  It may be politically unrealistic to suggest “punishments” from them.  But as honourable men, they ought to do honourable thing, including submitting a formal apology to the nation for their dereliction of duty.  It will be for the people of Pakistan in the forthcoming elections to pass collective political judgement on them. [al-Jazeera]

The last sentence of the concluding paragraph of the report is curious.  It apportions blame to those who “wielded primary authority and influence in national decision making,” but concludes by saying that it was for the people of Pakistan to pass a collective judgement on them in the elections.  Great, but Pakistanis don’t get to vote for their COAS or DG-ISI.  But they do cast votes on their civilian leadership.  From where this blogger is standing, the blame being apportioned here almost certainly targets Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP, rather than the Pakistani military establishment.

The other items for consideration pertaining to the release of the report are the timing and source of the alleged leak.  The leak occurs at a time when the U.S. is trying to negotiate an honorable exit from Afghanistan with the Pakistan-backed Taliban in Qatar. That the report was leaked by al-Jazeera, a news agency fully owned by the al-Thani family, which, as it happens, also rules Qatar may not be a coincidence.

This “leak” could effectively mean two things.  If the U.S. is sufficiently encouraged by the momentum and direction of the talks, it may be well-disposed towards bailing out the Pakistani military establishment from the embarrassment it has had to endure since 2011.  The discrete leak of a document via a news agency owned by a U.S. ally, which blames incompetence rather than connivance (the lesser of  two evils) while also criticizing a now mostly-irrelevant and ousted political party works well under such circumstances.

If, on the other hand, things aren’t going so well in Doha, the release of a classified report may have been viewed as necessary by some to coax Pakistan into action.  It will, of course, embarrass and anger the Pakistani military establishment.  More importantly, it will also most certainly complicate relations between Pakistan and Qatar.

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Pakistan’s resurgent hardline narrative

India needs options to counter looming threats beyond current LoC skirmishes.

On January 8, Pakistani soldiers affiliated with 29 Baloch regiment infiltrated across the Line of Control (LoC) at Mendhar sector in Poonch, ambushed 4 Indian soldiers, and according to news sources, “mutilated” the bodies of two jawans.  Defense Minister AK Antony termed the act “highly objectionable,” while MEA’s official spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin, called it “ghastly and unacceptable.”

Some reports indicate that at least one of the soldiers was beheaded.  If true, this would not be the first of such an occurrence.  Historically, beheadings of Indian troops were carried out by terror groups affiliated with the Pakistani army and by members of Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG).  In one such incident in 1999 2000, Ilyas Kashmiri, a member of the SSG (as well as future leader of HuJI’s 313 Brigade, and the “operational commander” behind 26/11) killed an Indian soldier, beheaded him, and allegedly presented the head as “trophy” to his then-COAS, Parvez Musharraf, for which he was highly commended.

In the face of such provocation, India’s response has been measured.  External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid promised a “proportionate” response.  Foreign Secretary Mathai summoned Pakistani High Commissioner Salman Bashir  to protest the incident, who in turn, flatly denied that it ever occurred (as is Pakistan’s m.o.).  To be sure, it is in India’s interests not to escalate the situation along the LoC and to ensure that the ceasefire remains in place.  Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex has never been a big fan of the 2003 ceasefire, as it poses certain challenges to its well-known bad habits.

It is therefore in India’s national security interests to ensure that these bad habits remain curtailed.  Military escalation, over an incident — heinous though the killings were — having little tactical or strategic significance (purely from a military standpoint) to India would not be wise.  Of course, non-military options are available at the government’s disposal, which can be used at a time and place of its choosing.

The Big Picture

But more broadly, what should concern India is the increasing assertiveness in Pakistan’s discourse of a more hardline narrative towards India.  Over the past several days and weeks, there has been disproportionate anti-India coverage in Pakistan’s Urdu press. (1, 2, 3).  This increasing assertiveness could have implications beyond the current skirmishes across the LoC.  The reasons for a more hardline stance towards India could be many.

First, there could be a realization in Rawalpindi that territorial negotiations with the UPA have reached a point of no success for Pakistan. Whatever faith the generals in Rawalpindi initially placed in prime minister Manmohan Singh to deliver magnanimous, Pakistan-friendly solutions to territorial disputes appears to have dissipated with the realization that negotiations have reached a cul-de-sac.  Trade talks, discussions on negative- and positive-lists may continue, but we are effectively back to square-one on issues of any real significance to Pakistan.

Second, while sections of our media misread recent updates to Pakistan’s “Green Book,” the inclusion of a section on “sub-conventional warfare” is interesting.  Pakistan is faced with a serious challenge to its internal security from well-armed militants.  It can seek to counter this challenge by [a] appealing to the militants to lay down their arms (ineffective), [b] military confrontation (costly), [c] absorbing those willing into Pakistan’s security forces, or [d] re-orienting them towards another target (i.e., India).

Indeed, recent statements from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has no direct quarrel with India, nor any capacity today to attack it, must be seen in this light.  This could pose a bigger challenge to India when hundreds of thousands of well-armed, but unemployed “mujahideen” return from Afghanistan to Pakistan in 2014.

The third is the Kayani angle.  Gen. Kayani, no doubt, did not endear himself to his Corps Commanders when he sought, and was given, an unprecedented extension as COAS in July 2010.  Now, while we can never be sure if he favored PPP’s on-going dialog with India, we know that he didn’t try to actively undermine it.  The big question mark is who will replace Gen. Kayani in November 2013, and what will his successor’s views be on India and the U.S.

There’s growing unease in Rawalpindi in the way Gen. Kayani handled the bin Laden raid, the Salala incident, the unrelenting U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, or peace talks with India.  What better way, then, for an aspiring COAS to present his credentials and ingratiate himself with the rank and file of the armed forces than by towing a harder line towards the neighbor on the east?

Lastly, Pakistan’s generals feel they are now in a position to affect a Pakistan-favorable solution to Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves in 2014, while continuing to be ensured of U.S. financial largesse in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism funds (this is a bad assumption for Pakistan to make, by the way.  Remember the Pressler Amendment)?

Securing an advantageous position in Afghanistan and continued economic assistance from the U.S. renders the need to play nice with India moot; or so the thinking of the military-jihadi complex goes.  The increasingly assertive hardline stance could mean increased attacks, both in J&K, and in “mainland” India in the months and years ahead.  New Delhi ought to be considering options to deal with threats emanating from the resurgent hardline narrative, beyond the current skirmishes at the LoC.

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Not your grandma’s al-Qaeda

Don’t ignore the possibility that attacks against the U.S. in Egypt and Libya were coordinated.

On Tuesday, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt came under attack.  In Cairo, an enraged mob, numbering — at first, about 50 — and later, hundreds, breached the embassy compound, took down the American flag and supposedly replaced it with al-Qaeda’s flag.  In Benghazi, the attack turned far more serious and resulted in the deaths of the U.S.’s ambassador to Libya, a consulate staffer, and two U.S. marines.

We are told that the reason behind the attacks was a movie entitled “Innocence of Muslims” by one Sam Bacile, an Israeli living in California, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed in poor light.  Excerpts of the movie have been published on Youtube, from where the attackers apparently first viewed its contents.  The film is being promoted by controversial pastor, Terry Jones, who was involved in the very public burning of the Quran, two years to the day of these recent attacks.

But mystery surrounds the person who is said to have directed the movie.  By some accounts, Sam Bacile has gone into hiding following the violent reaction to this film.  However, no current or historical records of the existence of an individual named Sam Bacile exist in the state of California or anywhere else in the U.S.  There are some suggestions that Sam Bacile might be a pseudonym of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a resident of Los Angeles.

News media in the U.S. has focused much of its energy on the Benghazi attack.  But earlier this morning, this blogger had tweeted that coordination between the attacks in Libya and Egypt cannot (and must not) be ruled out.  My contention was that these were per-meditated attacks against U.S. interests abroad on the anniversary of 9/11 and that the film itself may have offered an excuse to inflame passions, but was not the motive behind the attack.

Over the past many hours, U.S. officials have confirmed that they believe that the attack was planned in advance, and that protests merely offered a diversion.  The use of RPGs against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi makes this a distinct possibility.  In Egypt, Mohamed al-Zahwahiri, brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zahwahiri, claimed responsibility for the attack.  Mohamed al-Zahwahiri had only recently been released from prison, as part of the political upheaval following the so-called “Arab Spring” freedom movement in that country.  The irony is lost in the tragedy.

The attack in Benghazi is being linked to Ansar al-Shariah (AS), a group that has historically been affiliated with the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) umbrella.  AS continues to be active in Yemen and played a defining role in political realignments in Tunisia (as part of Asar al-Shariah in Tunisia, or AST), post the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

It could be likely, therefore, that militants from AST, already involved in the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, were responsible for the attack, given the geographic proximity to Tunisia.  Both attacks bear the signature of al-Qaeda, or its affiliated groups.  Osama bin Laden may be long gone, but this isn’t the al-Qaeda of yore.

These events pose new challenges to the U.S. and other countries.  The threat vector of jihad is evolving.  A decade ago, al-Qaeda relied on a dedicated core of foot-soldiers to attack the U.S. and U.S.-interests — even at the cost of their own lives — around the world.  Today, a voluntary cadre of foot-soldiers, ready to forsake their own lives, may not be a necessity.

There is a growing trend of utilizing social media and the Internet to inflame public opinion, which can then be employed as the agent of attack.  Indeed, in India last month, the use of websites and SMSs to, at once, highlight the plight of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam, and terrorize Northeast Indians into leaving their adopted cities without over having to employ direct force indicates the evolving mindset of extremist organizations and state sponsors of terrorism.

The U.S., India and other like-minded countries would do well to take cognizance of these changing attack vectors and co-operate to address mutual and evolving threats.

 

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After Osama bin Laden

Eight points to consider.

Osama bin-Laden has been killed.  U.S. president Barack Obama made the announcement over an hour ago.  We have more questions than answers about the nature of the operation that led to his killing and what cooperation, if any, was received from other governments.  Some points for us to consider:

  1. The fact that bin Laden was killed outside Abbottabad (75 miles from Islamabad) is significant.  Abbottabad is reported to house several retired Pakistani army and intelligence officers.
  2. Mr. Obama’s mention of President Zardari, and not Gen. Kayani/DG-ISI Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha is equally significant.  We know that the operation was in the works since August 2010, and gained momentum over the last six weeks.  It is also important to note Mr. Obama’s  mention that the operation was entirely executed by the U.S. — this was not a joint operation with Pakistani special-ops forces.  It is not clear at what point the Americans informed the Pakistanis.  If it turns out that the Pakistani civil administration was informed days or weeks before the operation, this is a significant victory for the civil administration over the military-jihadi complex (MJC).  If the Zardari government was informed ex post facto, it will still affect civil-military relations in Pakistan, but on a relatively lesser scale.
  3. We cannot read too much into President Obama thanking Pakistan for its cooperation.  The U.S. president was speaking in general terms — lest we forget, there is still a battle raging in Afghanistan for which the U.S. requires Pakistan’s assistance.  There was not much else Mr. Obama could have said about Pakistan’s duplicity.
  4. Given the fact that U.S. Navy SEALs traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan and executed the operation, it is likely that some level of Pakistani cooperation — whether direct, or indirect — was required.  If it turns out that cooperation was provided by Pakistan’s FIA and not the ISI, this is again, a significant moment in civil-military relations in Pakistan.
  5. If, in the remote possibility, any assistance was provided by Pakistan’s military/ISI, it only means that Osama bin Laden had become expendable to them.  The torch had been passed.
  6. Expect the battle between the civil administration and its goons, and the Pakistani military and its goons to play out openly in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  This will also effect the U.S.’s ability to move men and resources from Pakistan’s tribal areas  into Afghanistan.  This can be significantly consequential to the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan.
  7. The MJC will look to reassert itself as quickly and as decisively as possible.  It will set its sights on high-value targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan or even India.
  8. Critically, the Indian government needs to guard itself against possible terrorist activity in mainland India. ISI or al-Qaeda inspired attacks on Indian soil in the immediate future cannot be ruled out.  India is perhaps the most vulnerable target for the Pakistani MJC to counter-punch the Zardari government, which is ostensibly engaged in a “peace process” with New Delhi.

 

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