- As the dust settles on the ruin of late Osama bin Laden's
compound in Abbottabad, many questions have been asked. Pakistani
authorities have not indicted any awareness of the project, and they are
publicly deeply offended by it. Meanwhile, the Chinese obviously
have seen the fractured US-Pakistani relationship as an opportunity.
- Perhaps the view is speculative, but it does not seem
hard to reach a sensible judgment about what was going on before the US
raid. So far as Pakistani military authorities were concerned, Osama had
to know that his base was being watched all the time. Most likely no one
entered or left the compound without being observed, identified, tabulated,
tracked, and probably questioned. If Osama and his people in that facility
behaved, they were guests in Abbottabad. If they became truly obnoxious,
they were really prisoners and could easily be disciplined.
- Most likely Osama and his staff did not have telephone
or internet connections to the outside world simply because they knew that
on such media they could do nothing without being overheard or watched
day and night. Good people had to carry instructions in their heads or
nothing in the way of message traffic moved in or out. The cook was probably
the person most often in touch with the outside world.
- What were the benefits of this arrangement to Pakistani
intelligence authorities? First, having Osama in that visible compound
was far superior to trying to keep tabs on him and his operatives in Waziristan.
Second, it was child's play to track his operational activities, if any,
by keeping tabs on any people who entered or left the site. Third, Pakistan's
intelligence service, ISI was probably not an innocent bystander whose
operatives merely observed Osama's traffic; they could easily take advantage
of it and by coopting Osama's messengers they could easily piggyback on
his activities. Fourth, it is not out of the question that Pak authorities
could have joint ventured operations involving Osama's Taliban contacts
in the Afghan frontier regions or deeper in Afghanistan. Finally, it would
have been no big deal to interfere with Osama's outside team activities
where that better served Pakistani purposes.
- Now what? That should be the next question. Where will
the central authority of al Qaida-to the extent that it retains one-station
itself? Al Qaida operations from the beginning have been naturally decentralized
to a great extent. That is because al Qaida largely does not invent the
causes it serves. Rather it relies on local groups with local grievances
to carry out operations that serve local purposes. Those activities may
get media play or official reactions outside the countries of origin, but
that would not be al Qaida's doing. How al Qaida might help such local
groups and activities is completely scenario driven.
- The trick now is to locate and begin keeping effective
tabs on al Qaida's new operating center. As the US and Pak authorities
pick up the pieces of a relationship badly fragmented by drone attacks
and the covert Osama attack, a place to start is remapping the structure
of al Qaida. The quickest way for al Qaida to regroup is to work in some
existing subordinate location. That could well be reasonably nearby, in
Pakistan probably in or near a sizeable city such as Peshawar. It would
be hard to re-center in Afghanistan, because the al Qaida presence is reportedly
so thin that beefing it up would attract attention.
- Even so, the attractions of Afghanistan are enormous.
Continued US, NATO and related Afghan support activities are not only
natural targets for al Qaida mischief; they provide the environment for
ready recruitment of new members to replace losses elsewhere and to augment
activities in Afghanistan. The longer and more widely US/NATO forces conduct
operations in Afghanistan, the better the recruitment environment for al
Qaida. That is to say nothing of possibilities for alliances with disaffected
elements of the Taliban. Such attractions might provide a reason for al
Qaida reorganizers to build a new core group in the Afghan region, at least
for starters. Such prospects do not bode well for the safety of US forces
in that region in the near term. It would be prudent to mount an enhanced
tracking effort just to determine that such moves and maneuvers are not
- It was obviously so much easier for Pakistanis to keep
tabs on al Qaida leadership (whether or not Osama was there) when the Abbottabad
compound was home base. It will not be easy to replace that high order
of surveillance and opportunity to interfere with al Qaida operations.
- It is not foregone that, with Chinese interference running
high, the US/Pak relationship can be stabilized. However, what could come
out of a US/Pakistani reexamination of the al Qaida leadership arrangements
might well be a more effective US/Pakistani operation than existed before.
Certainly, the injuries to relationships that covert US operations without
consultations entail could be reduced and probably overcome by a more open
and direct working relationship. For that purpose, both players need better
definitions and agreements on what must be shared and coordinated.
- However, the lesson for US friends and allies is hardly
encouraging. Aside from the discomfiting drone attacks in Pakistan's western
frontier region, no such large scale covert US operation has been conducted
before in a friendly country. The lesson of the Abbottabad operation is
that friendship is no protection if the US sees something in a country
that is perceived to threaten some American interest. In case there was
any doubt, Obama has reconfirmed the George W. Bush policy of wherever
US interests may appear to be threatened, there are no borders.