By Swapan Dasgupta
The so-called $1 million 'mansion' in which Osama bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad for the past five years looks, to subcontinental eyes at least, more like an ungainly—and most likely, unauthorised—construction we are accustomed to seeing on the fringes of our unplanned cities and towns. That the CIA was able to hone in on such a building and observe it undetected for nearly a year is a tribute to its capabilities. The success of the inappropriately-named Operation Geronimo on May 2 has forced a review of the theory that Langley's over-dependence on electronic surveillance had made it less effective in a war where the 'non-state players' banked a great deal traditional methods of communication and money transfers. The CIA has shown that when the situation so demands it can fall back on old-fashioned intelligence gathering through a network of spies and informers.
For the US, it was not merely its ability to ferret out the darkest secret of Pakistan that has been both noted and, in some cases, appreciated. Equally significant is the global realisation that it has the capacity to act on that intelligence—whether through Drone attacks or daring special operations. True, the Abbottabad raid violated Pakistan's sovereignty and Washington would have been seriously embarrassed (and even become an object of ridicule) had the operation misfired—as it could so easily have done. Given the sheer magnitude of the risks involved—recall President Jimmy Carter's humiliation when the operation to free the American hostages held by Iran's Revolutionary Guards ended in disaster—President Barack Obama is entitled to draw some political mileage for his show of forthrightness.
It is interesting to see how just one successful Special Ops has lifted the morale of not just the US but even its allies. General David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff of the UK, for example, that the success Abbottabad was "definitely a positive" in the context of the ongoing operations against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. "It will remind like-minded people wherever they are", he is quoted in The Times as saying, "that one day their deeds will catch up with them. That is psychologically very important in the context of Libya and other crises in the Middle East…" Yet, the same General Richards had confessed in November 2010 that defeating Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy was "unnecessary and would never be achieved". It could, at best, be "contained".
The shift from resignation, bordering on dejection, to gung-ho assertiveness isn't likely to be confined to General Richards alone. In the short term, Operation Geronimo is certain to roll back the tide of western defeatism that had egged on Pakistan's innate duplicitousness. But for how long?
As more and more details of the hunt for Osama bin Laden comes into the public domain, it is becoming more and more apparent that Americans have recognised that there is no place for squeamishness in the national security business. President Obama may have won his election in 2008 on the strength of both his ethnicity and a groundswell of aesthetic rejection of President George W. Bush's War on Terror. However, what is now apparent is that the success of last week's operation was ensured by the groundwork done by the previous regime. Had some of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay not been subjected to "special interrogation techniques", the CIA wouldn't have got to know about Osama's trusted courier. And if they didn't have his identity, the spooks wouldn't have been able to gauge the significance of four telephone calls.
Official disclosures have also made it quite apparent that firefight" was inappropriate to describe the encounter in Abbottabad. Only one of those inside the grim house is said to have challenged the marines with a gun, and his resistance was short-lived. Osama, it has now been admitted, was unarmed and apparently cowering inside a room with his latest Yemeni wife.
The implication is dramatic: Osama was executed. Since no court in the US has sentenced him to death, his killing was clearly extra-judicial. And yet, Obama has taken the credit for approving the operation and has even honoured commandos who participated in it. In the eyes of the US, those who ended the life of the country's most wanted terrorist were heroes.
To view Operation Geronimo as a modern variant of a cowboy film starring either John Wayne or Clint Eastwood isn't far-fetched. But was it ethically wrong? Should Osama have been captured alive and then brought to trial in a New York court or, as some have argued, a Nuremberg-type war crimes trial? Alternatively, should President Obama and all those involved in the operation be put on trial for subverting the course of law and taking part in a pre-meditated, extra-judicial killing? Should something like a Special Investigation Team that was inquiring into the killing of Ishrat Jehan, someone the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba claimed as their own, be set up in the US to probe Osama's death?
The US is likely to laugh away these suggestions, just as they have brushed aside Pakistan's protests on the violation of sovereignty. The killing of Osama has demonstrated that effective counter-terrorism is ultimately also a reflection of the national character.
The lessons for India don't need to be spelt out. We lack the will to confront our enemies. This is why we are always a soft target.