The killing of Osama bin Laden by US Special Forces in Abbottabad, a Pakistan military cantonment that houses the Pakistan Military Academy and the Baloch Regiment Centre, is undoubtedly a significant achievement in the annals of counter-terrorism. About 70 US troops, largely Navy SEALs, were involved in the heliborne operation launched from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. While one helicopter had to be destroyed, there were no American casualties. Operation Geronimo was a classic textbook military operation that will be studied for many years by military planners. It was boldly conceived, meticulously planned and methodically executed.
It is completely in keeping with the Pakistani army and the ISI’s perfidious character that Osama was found in a Pakistani cantonment. CIA chief Leon Panetta said after the strike, “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets.” John Brennan, counter-terrorism adviser to President Obama has said, “It was inconceivable that Osama bin Laden did not have a support system in Pakistan that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time.” Also, only a week ago leaked US embassy cables had described the ISI as a terrorist organization. Hard questions are now being asked and several US Senators and members of Congress have called for the suspension of all aid to Pakistan.
The death of bin Laden will not mark the end of al Qaeda’s terrorist strikes. It will be only a temporary setback for the organization as it has a cellular structure and is not hierarchical. Leaders heading various cells have always operated fairly autonomously and will continue to do so. The al Qaeda has developed linkages and coordinates its operations with many international affiliates, including the LeT, JeM and HuJI. Its peculiar brand of Jihad will go on. In fact, in the short term, some reprisal attacks may be expected against western targets and those in India. A spectacular attack with a ‘dirty nuke’ - a high explosive bomb filled with radioactive material - also cannot be ruled out.
Since the ISI knew about Osama’s presence at Abbottabad for five years and even provided support to him, it has been proved beyond an iota of doubt that it is a rogue intelligence agency that must be dismantled. The Pakistan army and the ISI are part of the problem and cannot, therefore, be part of the solution in the so-called ‘global War on Terror’. Pakistan is in danger of collapsing from the centrifugal forces generated by internal instability and accentuated by creeping Talibanization, and its inner contradictions as a state ruled for long by the army. If the probability of collapse reaches the tipping point as it soon might, Pakistan’s nuclear warheads must be taken out or destroyed in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust on the Indian subcontinent. Such an international effort will invariably have to be led by the Americans. As the most directly affected party, India must provide all the help and assistance that the US might ask for, including direct military participation.
The main lesson for India from the spectacular military operation conducted by the CIA and the US Special Forces is that nations that are too moralistic and legalistic in dealing with the complex challenge of state-sponsored terrorism usually end up as hapless victims. Only pro-active covert operations conducted by counter-terrorism agencies and Special Forces can raise the cost for the adversary sufficiently enough to deter him from launching terror strikes. There is no reason why terrorist-criminals like Hafiz Sayeed, Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim should be walking freely, planning future terrorist strikes and delivering inflammatory anti-Indian speeches from Pakistani soil. They can and must be brought to justice through covert operations launched by Indian counter-terrorism agencies in concert with armed forces personnel of the Special Forces.
The US and Israel have repeatedly demonstrated their determination to eliminate non-state actors who plan terror strikes against them. In the interest of national security, India too must follow the same lead. The major requirements for pro-active operations are political will, meticulous intelligence acquisition and the requisite counter-terrorism and military capabilities. The government must permit the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to re-establish covert operations capabilities that were dismantled under a prime minister’s orders around 1997. Air assault capabilities exist with the armed forces, but these need to be modernized and qualitatively upgraded.