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Why was bin Laden exposed so far from his base of power?

The Pakistani army and ISI will be blamed for harbouring bin Laden, but there is no simple explanation why he was in a military cantonment surrounded by enemies.

After almost a decade of the United States bringing all of its mammoth resources to bear, Osama bin Laden has been killed by US forces near Islamabad. The raid took place at a fortified compound in Abbottabad, which serves primarily as a military cantonment and the site of the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy, about 110 kilometres from Islamabad. Apart from the academy, this little town houses four regimental centres and some unit headquarters.

While Abbottabad is part of the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, it is almost entirely non-Pashtun. Bin Laden's protectors were presumed to be Taliban, who draw their ranks predominantly from the Pashtun ethnic group. So the first question is, why was he there?

For the last decade, since bin Laden fled the safety of the caves in Afghanistan's Tora Bora, his exact whereabouts have been speculative. According to American sources - and without taking issue on their accuracy - bin Laden flitted across the Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But to come as far into Pakistan as Abbottabad in a non-Pashtun area, and to a cantonment crowded with troops and intelligence personnel, seems an unbelievable risk. Many Americans will point their fingers at the Pakistan army or the ISI, reasoning that elements of both have worked hand-in-glove with bin Laden. It is therefore appropriate to point out that in early 2007, bin Laden explicitly declared war on Pakistan.

Since then, Pakistani civilians and security personnel who have been killed by al Qa'eda related elements have far outnumbered American casualties, including those in Afghanistan. There was no love lost between bin Laden and the Pakistani military. That suggests there is more to this than meets the eye.

For several years, it has been widely accepted that bin Laden was ailing. Reportedly, he could not walk for any length of time and, when forced to change his hiding place, he was carried on horseback or rode piggy-back on one of his guards. His participation in his advisory council is thought to have been infrequent and, when present, his contribution was negligible. For all practical purposes, his lieutenant Ayman al Zawahiri has probably been in command.

I am firmly of the view that bin Laden would never have ventured so far inside Pakistan under normal circumstances. One likely explanation is entrapment, although it is hard to imagine that anyone besides a very trusted henchman would be able to lure him so far. The United States claims that a chain of intelligence led to one of bin Laden's couriers and the Abbottabad compound, but it does not explain why he was there.

It is worth remembering that there was a $25 million bounty on his head. If bin Laden was ailing, and his support from former allies wavering, it is not inconceivable that the Americans received more information than they have divulged.

The debate about the complicity of members of the Pakistani military and security services will rage in the coming days, but there is no simple explanation why bin Laden would be so far inland, in a military cantonment that was riddled with so many soldiers and intelligence personnel who would name him their enemy.

If he was sold out, whoever did so must have initiated contact through the ISI, which is well known to have open lines of communication with some chapters of the Taliban. There have certainly been rumours, not always reliable, of bin Laden receiving protection in the past. In 2008, when he desperately needed medical attention, subsequent reports indicated that almost 40 houses were occupied around a hospital on the periphery of the Khyber Agency .

My view is that al Qa'eda has been ailing for some time and was fated to die its own death regardless. However, before it does, it will almost certainly be business as usual with the attendant bloodshed. Whether Ayman al Zawahiri will hold the reins of power remains to be seen. Abu Ayoub al Iraqi, suspected to be a founder of al Qa'eda, might also emerge from the shadows to take a visible hand in its affairs.

As for the US president Barack Obama's claim that the attack was carried out exclusively by American troops, it is almost certainly false. In fairness to Mr Obama, it is more than likely that the Pakistan government preferred and probably requested this version of events, fearing the consequences of being held even partly responsible for bin Laden's death.

Those who might believe that any cooperation in this operation between the United States and Pakistan will improve bilateral relations are doomed to be disappointed. Here, too, it will be business as usual.

 

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a former Pakistani infantry officer

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