Nearly 10 years after two towers went down in flames in New York, there was a late night hurrah in Washington. The hunt was over. Early on Sunday morning, Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces. His hideout was, however, on the wrong side of the Durand Line: instead of some remote Afghan cave, the Al Qaeda boss was found in the heart of Abbottabad, barely an hour’s drive from Islamabad.
The elusive terrorist’s end came after years of painstaking intelligence gathering and a carefully planned mission in which there was no Pakistani involvement. US officials were quick to say that “we shared our intelligence on this compound with no other country, including Pakistan”. At an operational level, secrecy in this mission was essential; for Pakistan has brigades of Al Qaeda sympathizers who could have alerted him. The issue takes a different hue, however, at the strategic level—the one at which diplomacy works by winks. Here the possibility of discord between Islamabad and Washington is unlikely. India needs to be alert to this development.
What will be the consequences of the man’s death? One must say that the field of vision is occluded with contradictory developments: Minimal in a part of the world impervious to US soft power; maximal where US generosity and massaging of the elite have been considerable.
The House of Harmony
The Middle East today is a very different place from when Osama began his jihad. The Americans came and are about to go away from Iraq. If the neoconservative dream of exporting democracy to Iraq is in trouble in that ethnically fractured land, it is sprouting green shoots elsewhere: In Egypt and Tunisia, democracy is now a matter of consolidation. The Muslim Brotherhood may try to throw a spanner in the wheels of democracy but that is unlikely to work: Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al Banna are figures of a bygone age; twitter, blogs and the magic of individualism have left the ideas of these fiery messengers of political Islam otiose.
Elsewhere, in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the path is likely to be more complicated, but the yearning for freedom and democratic rights cannot be erased. When scores died demanding democracy in Deraa, Syria, they were in a very different world from the paradise that Osama dreamt of.
“What has changed” is a wrong question; it was only a matter of time before democracy would have caught the imagination of this part of the world. If anything, the abuse of a great religion—the fear of an Islamic “takeover” in some cases and the use of its conservative interpretations in others—by the rulers in this part of the world had to end at some point of time. That time came much before Osama’s death. It is not likely to change after it bar a few detours here and there.
The House of War
Matters are entirely different closer home. Here, the Pakistani state in its bid for parity with India has slowly but most firmly radicalized its citizens. It has done that for the purposes of mobilizing them against India, making it impossible for any leader—bar the generals—to compromise with its bigger neighbour. Public opinion is certain to be inflamed in the wake of Osama’s death.
That works very well for the masters of that country, for even in his death Osama is likely to have served a purpose. If, on the one hand, it gives an American president a much needed victory before he enters the electoral arena in 2012, on the other hand, it gives—by a wink—Islamabad what it wants in Afghanistan. Now, a US withdrawal from that country can begin on the note of victory: Osama is gone and a deal can be cut with the Taliban. If the past is any measure, Islamabad’s “sensitivities” will be taken note of, the Indians ousted out of Kabul and Hamid Karzai plainly told to cut a deal with Pakistan.
It may sound conspiratorial that the passing of one isolated and broken terrorist can alter so much. Ten years ago, the ramming of two planes in two buildings evoked a similar response. Today, the world is a changed place. The US’ desire to declare “victory” and exit Afghanistan gains strength in proportion to the date of presidential election there. Pakistan is keenly aware of that timetable.
This does not bode well for India. Once Afghanistan is secured, Islamabad will certainly turn its attention to India. It happened the last time when the Taliban presided in Kabul. Kandahar and Kargil followed. There is no need for panic or fear- mongering, but realities should not be lost sight of. India is being dealt an adverse deck in Afghanistan. Osama’s death is only one, near final, piece in that process. So far, few steps have been taken to counter that except the laying of asphalt in remote corners of that country. What needs to be done is to understand and appreciate the processes that are unfolding. Logically, this should be followed by the right steps. The problem, as always, is that of the weakness of political will in India.
What will be the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s death? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org