Much of Seymour Hersh’s extensive London Review of Books exposé of the attack that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 merely reiterates what common sense had argued all along.
Pakistani intelligence could not have been unaware that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad.
Pakistani intelligence could not have been kept entirely in the dark about the plot to kill Osama bin Laden.
Despite all the public breast beating and name calling, US and Pakistan were very much working together.
The “treasure trove” of materials recovered from the compound actually yielded little. There were no garbage bags filled with computers and storage devices. And bin Laden’s wives and children were never turned over to the Americans for questioning by the Pakistanis.
Osama bin Laden's killing was plain and simple about revenge for 2001. Osama bin Laden’s killing was about Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. One thing the killing was NOT about was blowing a hole in an intricate Al Qaeda web with bin Laden as the mastermind spider at its centre.
Basically ten years after 9/11, the US forces killed a sick old man whose value was mostly symbolic by then.
A retired senior US intelligence official tells Hersh "The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that.” Then the press would say ‘“You mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?"
Age and illness does not excuse or temper the horrific crimes bin Laden masterminded any more than it should excuse the records of Nazi war criminals. But what Hersh does is puncture the self-serving mythmaking that surrounds the operation.
In order for Obama to look like the decisive American President taking one of the “gutsiest calls of any President in recent memory”, Osama too had to be made larger-than-life, far from a figurehead, still an “active player” directing “even tactical details of the group’s management.” Until then US had been insisting that Osama was largely a has-been, that al Qaeda had splintered, his networks disrupted, that his videos were not so relevant anymore. But in death Osama bin Laden had to be re-inflated into the bogeyman of 2001.
But lies need lies. That reconstruction required more lies to prop it up.
The intrepid American Seals had to push their way in through a firefight. There was no firefight. The ISI guards were gone removed at just the right time by their bosses. In a country where anyone high-profile and wealthy have armed bodyguards, it would beggar belief that one of the most wanted men in the world had no round-the-clock protection. So a firefight had to be invented. The attack on Abbottbad needed to be Hollywoodized.
But an invented firefight needed casualties. The US claimed that five people died in that compound – Osama bin Laden, a courier, his brother, a bin Laden son, and one of the women shielding bin Laden. But apparently there was no woman “shielding” him. The courier was mythical and therefore needed to be killed in the operation.
Then there was the problem with the body. According to Hersh, the initial deal with the Pakistanis was to keep mum about the operation for a week. And then say he had been killed in a drone attack somewhere in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan side of the border. That would let the Pakistanis off the hook when it came to embarrassing questions about their secret VVIP guest. But a downed Blackhawk helicopter that met with an accident and had to be blown up in the Abbottabad compound blew the cover on the operation and Obama decided to make his announcement sooner rather than later.
But once he made the announcement there was a body problem. Hersh says a SEAL team member had bragged that "they had torn bin Laden's body to pieces with rifle fire." And the remains including “his head” were thrown into a body bag and some parts tossed out over the mountains of Hindu Kush. That might have been empty boast, part of the Seals mythmaking. Or it might have been true. But the administration could not risk that story. Instead they came up with the burial at sea with full Islamic rites but Hersh says it’s a story with “no back-up support”. If that had been the plan all along an Imam would have been on the ship. But then the administration would stand exposed in its claim that it fully intended to capture bin Laden alive and not assassinate him. If the Seals were to be believed there was not much of bin Laden to bury at sea anyway.
If there was one real casualty in the whole affair it was a Pakistan doctor named Shakil Afridi. His perfectly legitimate hepatitis B vaccination programme was named as the way the US obtained bin Laden’s DNA. Afridi became the sacrificial lamb because the US wanted to protect its real CIA informant Amir Aziz who had been held by the Pakistanis. Afridi was accused of treason and sentenced to 33 years by the Pakistanis. Other vaccination programmes were cancelled once this lie was put forth. In taking out one terrorist, long past his prime, the US and Pakistan could have inadvertently endangered the public health of thousands. And that vaccination lie will continue to live on – collateral damage of a cooked up story that will affect vaccination programmes in remote areas.
Obama does not have to run for re-election. He will likely face little flak especially since his opponents will not want to sound soft on bin Laden. And there will be few tears shed for bin Laden. Has-been or not, his past finally caught up with him. But if there is one silver lining in the whole story it is that Pakistan’s duplicity was exposed. It thought it could run with the hares and hunt with the hounds but it was caught with its pants down.
That’s left Pakistan red-faced and angry but India will shrug and say “I told you so”. And there’s one other player probably not unhappy about the way the Osama bin Laden story ended. And that is Saudi Arabia. That kingdom probably would have been very unhappy if bin Laden started singing about its role in funding Al Qaeda in the first place.
In the end Osama bin Laden took his secrets to his watery grave. The Pakistanis have got over their pique and reluctantly started cooperating with the Americans again as ISIS steps up its attacks. The Americans are back to funding the Pakistanis. The Indians are back to fuming. And there’s no telling what the death of bin Laden achieved strategically except as a long-delayed postscript to the story of September 11 2001.
What is sad about Abbottabad 2011 was that was billed as closure to the horrific reality of the Twin Towers of 9/11 turns out to be a house of cards propped up with lies built upon lies.
Updated Date: May 13, 2015 12:19:41 IST