The most intensive manhunt in history ended on 2 May 2011 with the killing of Osama bin Laden. When an elite squad of helicopter-borne US Navy SEALs slipped into Pakistan from Afghanistan, they returned with the body of al-Qaeda’s founder-king. To the relief of many around the world, the man who had attacked and physically eliminated all he perceived as enemies of Islam – Soviets and Americans, Iraqis and Pakistanis – was dispatched to his watery grave.
Initially, the Pakistani government claimed cooperation in the operation. But this was flatly rejected by those who had laid and executed the intricate plans. John Brennan, assistant to President Barack Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, said, ‘We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace … we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces.’ The director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Leon Panetta, hinted at Pakistan’s complicity with al-Qaeda when he said, ‘It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis might jeopardise the mission: they might alert the targets.’ Significantly, President Obama did not thank Pakistan.
For Pakistan it was, as columnist Ayaz Amir put it, the mother of all embarrassments. For years, the country’s military and civilian leaders had flatly denied bin Laden’s presence in the country. Some had slyly suggested he might be in Sudan or Somalia. Others confidently claimed that he had died from a kidney ailment, or perhaps was in some intractable area protected by nature and terrain, and thus outside of the effective control of the Pakistani state. But as it turned out, of course, the world’s most famous and recognisable terrorist’s abode was within walking distance of the famed Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul, a short distance from Abbottabad, where, just days earlier, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had declared that ‘The terrorist backbone has been broken and inshaallah we will soon prevail.’
Pakistanis, who think of their military as a fine fighting force, were angry and appalled that the American invaders got away with the raid scot-free. The military consumes a huge chunk of Pakistan’s national resources; it had just purchased sophisticated AWAC aircraft, continues receiving delivery of modernised US F-16s, and has a nuclear arsenal that could soon rival Britain’s in size. But the hugely expensive system proved unable to detect, much less confront, the five slow-moving helicopters that flew in south from Jalalabad. Two of these landed and stayed for 40 minutes almost next to the brigade headquarters of the Second Division of the Northern Army Corps in Abbottabad. They left without engagement. It was only when the Americans had exited Pakistan’s airspace that air defences were scrambled.
For multiple reasons, bin Laden’s killing has become a bone stuck in the throat of Pakistan’s establishment, which despises the Americans but is formally aligned with them. This bone can neither be swallowed nor spat out. To approve of the Abbottabad operation would infuriate the Islamists, who are already fighting the state. To protest too loudly, however, would suggest that Pakistan had willingly hosted the king of terrorists.
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