The death of Osama bin Laden in a surgical operation carried out by the US Special Forces will be a subject of discussion among political and security analysts the world over for many weeks to come. However, the events leading to this success story, that have unfolded within 12 hours of the operation, is a case study imparting a number of important lessons in political courage and professional finesse not only during the operation but the post-incident handling and needs to be captured now. Debates and post-mortems sometime tend to cloud this first impression.
President Obama deserves full marks for risking his political career by signing off, on April 29, on orders that authorized the operation. A task of this magnitude, an action in an alien territory based on intelligence reports about the presence of the world’s most wanted fugitive, who had once been declared dead by no less a person than the former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, would have been difficult to accomplish without a necessary amount of risk. Lesser mortals may have preferred verbal orders to allow an escape route in the event of failure. The US President showed faith in his advisors, confidence in the capabilities of those who were to carry out the orders and created a moral obligation from his team towards himself. And indeed they did not let him down.
Within 8 hours of the operation President Obama, with confidence and poise, announced the death of the mastermind of 9/11. Remember, the operation was carried out during the night in Pakistan. Yet the US agencies had arrangements at hand (without any visible support from the host nation) to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that they had killed Osama. And the President was able to utilize this opportunity to send across the important message that America’s war was against terrorism and not Islam. Had it taken longer to prove Osama’s identity, there would have been no Presidential statement until the next morning, spawning many versions of and speculations about the event. The impact would have been lost. An emotionally choked young lady, who had served and was injured in Afghanistan, joined the celebrations in Washington DC, and claimed she could see a new White House, one over which the clouds of 9/11 had finally dissipated. The crowds were chanting ‘USA, USA’ and a second term for Obama. Obama has thus given a new meaning to the responsibilities of a Chief Executive, US capabilities and its resolve against terrorism.
The master stroke in the entire operation was to remove the body of Laden from Pakistan before the native authorities got a whiff of it. All hell would have been let loose if the body had been seized by Pakistani authorities. All kinds of legal wrangling and pressure on the already fragile security situation could arise. World focus would have shifted to live coverages of the dead body and radicals could have exploited this situation. However, within 12 hours, the body is learnt to have been buried with religious rites in the Arabian Sea. The operation itself, the removal of the dead body and the last rites speak volumes about the precision with which the plan was made and executed.
The operation’s secrecy was the biggest asset that led to this success. It is clear that for fear of leakage, no Pakistani authority was kept in the loop. Sharing of information would have been suicidal. It is highly unlikely that the Pakistani Army was unaware of the presence of Laden in the mansion built in 2005, with walls 12-18 feet high, topped off with barbed wire, and less than a kilometre away from the Military Academy. What surprises is the complacency that had set in among those privy to his presence that no one could reach Osama. As the initial reactions show, even the NATO allies were informed after the operation was over.
As for the operation itself, how did the choppers avoid Pakistani radars? Even after one helicopter crashed, a contingency plan was in place. It is immaterial whether it was accidental or was fired at. What is important is that it did not impair the operation and the US troops were even able to explode the crashed copter so as to not leave any remains. The loss of a helicopter could have led to chaos in a less professional team. In 40 minutes, despite the helicopter accident, a precise and successful surgical operation was carried out. Subesequently, one is likely to hear and read volumes about the execution of this immaculately planned operation. However, important lessons from the expert handling of the situation in the first 12 hours post Osama’s death have already emerged.