“Geronimo EKIA” – Osama Killed

Geronimo was the code name given to world’s most wanted man – Osama Bin Laden. A code name picked from the history book, Geronimo (June 16, 1829 – February 17, 1909) was a prominent Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache who fought against Mexico and the United States for their expansion into Apache tribal lands for several decades during the Apache Wars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geronimo).

EKIA” is the short form for “Enemy Killed in Action”. “Geronimo EKIA” said the CIA Director Leon Panetta to the President and his advisors in the White House anxiously watching him on a video screen as he was providing live update of the raid from the CIA HQ. After a brief silence, President Obama spoke up, “We got him.” This is how the biggest manhunt in the history culminated on May 2nd, 2011. It took the US, the Superpower of the world, 10 years, costed 444 billion dollars and resulted in 1,185 dead and 11,032 wounded American soldiers in addition to the military and intelligence support provided by all its allies and almost every nation in the world.

Obama in his address and subsequent White House briefings have clarified that the intelligence on Osama and the information about the US operation was shared with no other country including Pakistan and it was an all US operation. Obama telephoned Pakistan’s President Zardari after the US helicopters had left the Pakistani air space to inform him about killing of Osama.

For years, the Pakistani Government, Army and ISI had denied that they had any information on the whereabouts of Osama and had maintained that Osama was hiding somewhere along the mountainous Afghanistan Pakistan border, a region beyond their control. While all these years Osama was safely harboured in a three story mansion located less than a kilometre away from the Kakul Military Academy in Abbottabad, a garrison town less than 100 Km away from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. The irony of the situation has left the Pakistani establishment red-faced. Everyone starting from US and its allies to the Pakistani public as well as Pakistan’s strongest detractor India is suspecting the same thing, asking the same questions – How is it possible that Pakistan didn’t know about Osama’s presence in such a high security military zone and if they knew why were the sheltering him?

As expected, Pakistan has strangely denied these allegations but there are not many who are willing to buy their theory. Lack of convincing answers from both sides, has led to wide scale speculation all over the world and everyone worth his salt today has his own hypothesis. I am no exception.

The fact that Osama was hiding so close to the high profile Military Academy in a garrison town is a very good reason to suspect that ISI would have been aware of his presence but is it really a good enough reason to establish this allegation beyond doubt? Perhaps not! Pakistani ambassador to the US, in an interview to NDTV, has termed it an intelligence failure but has at the same time pointed out that there have been similar or even bigger intelligence failures in the past in other countries including the US. By citing absence of WMD in Iraq as one of the biggest intelligence failure of CIA, he has tried to hit back where it hurts. Although the US would never admit but WMD in Iraq was perhaps not an intelligence failure. It was only an excuse used by President Bush to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussain to massage his father’s dented ego. However, even without counting Iraq, it would not be unreasonable to admit that the possibility of an intelligence failure can not be ruled out.

On the other hand, if Pakistan’s intentions were indeed right and if they were indeed trying their best to hunt down Osama, it is quite logical that Osama would have tried to find a hideout which was not easily accessible to the US as well as to Pakistan. Would he deliberately choose to live in a high security zone hoping for an intelligence failure? The fact that he chose this place and was living there for years (as claimed by US now) is a good indication that he had a clear cut assurance about his safety from the highest level in the Pakistani Army and Intelligence.

Osama was suffering from a number of ailments such as kidney problem, low blood pressure, diabetes etc. which required continuous medical care. If he was living in the mountains, as earlier claimed by Pakistan, how would he have managed good quality medical care? Medical care is undoubtedly a good reason to choose a city hideout over a cave in a mountain. However, the strongest reason for him to choose a high security area controlled by the Army would have been to hide from the US. Osama and his protectors in the Pakistan Army and Intelligence would have thought – firstly, the US would never suspect that Osama would hide in such a high profile place and secondly even if they did it would be very difficult for the CIA operatives to operate in this area without being detected by Pakistani Army and Intelligence.

Looking at the terrain and neighbourhood of Osama’s hideout (http://www.wikimapia.org/#lat=34.1691996&lon=73.2422742&z=19&l=0&m=h), it does appear to be an excellent choice. The house has long stretch of open field on three sides and a secluded dirt road on one side. Any person hanging around the house would get spotted immediately. And yet, the CIA had this house under constant surveillance for last 8-10 months. Difficult to imagine how. None of the old fashioned, spy movie, methods would have worked. An outsider (that too a foreigner) would get detected immediately in that lonely neighbourhood. You can’t park a car across the road or drive up and down all day long for months together. You can’t take a house on rent across road because there are very few and presence of foreigners would have become talk of the town within a day. The only safe way would have been to use high resolution live imagery from satellite or a reconnaissance plane.  I have no idea how good or how reliable this method is but I can’t think of any other safe method of surveillance.

However, more than the circumstantial evidence, we need to look at the intentions and motivation behind shielding Osama. While it is understandable that ISI would protect the Talibans with a hope to reinstall them in Afghanistan after US withdrawal, Osama had virtually very little utility left. The only benefit of keeping Osama alive would have been to use him as the carrot to extract big aid from the US. For Pakistani Army, Osama was the goose who laid golden eggs. The Pak Army would not have hesitated to trade Osama for an end game in Afghanistan at some point in future. Ever since President Obama came to office with a promise to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Pakistani Army would have kindled a hope to reclaim Afghanistan. On the other hand, Obama administration must have been working on the withdrawal plan for quite some time and in the process would have realized that after paying such a huge price in terms of lives lost, money spent and prestige staked they wouldn’t be able to leave without bringing some sort of closure to the 9/11 tragedy. For the Obama, capturing or killing Osama bin Laden would have appeared the most honourable exit strategy as well as the best way to boost his sagging public rating. It must have been based on this rationale when he summoned the CIA Director two years back and instructed him to hunt down Osama on top most priority. While getting Osama must have always been a high priority for the US for the last 10 years, for some reason, the efforts and the desire were perhaps not as strong and as focused as displayed by Obama in the last two years.

On the other hand, Osama’s support team including the Pakistani Army and Intelligence was perhaps not aware of this subtle yet decisive change in US policy towards Osama’s hunt. Emboldened by their success in shielding Osama from US for the last 10 years, they might have also got more and more complacent and careless. These two factors were perhaps instrumental behind the success achieved by US in first tracing their target and later eliminating it in surgical precision.

The other important issue is how was the raid carried out without the knowledge of Pakistani Army? How the four US helicopters travelled over 250 Km from Jalalabad in Afghanistan into a high security zone, carried out the 40 minutes operation and managed to safely go back without being detected and engaged. They must have spent close to 5 hours in Pakistan from the time of entering Pak airspace. Much has been talked about US technical capability to jam Pakistani radars but it doesn’t appear to be a convincing theory. Helicopters are essentially low flying machines and as such are difficult to detect by radar. However, the disadvantage with low flying is the possibility of visual detection. Helicopters also produce lot of noise and hence are likely to attract a lot of attention. On top of it, Helicopters in general and low flying ones in particular are extremely vulnerable machines and can be brought down very easily perhaps even with a simple gun.

What is said above about Osama’s choice of hideout and possibility of intelligence failure also holds good here in terms of logic. While it is quite possible that in the end by a combination of technological superiority, excellent planning and execution and more importantly with heaps of luck, the US Choppers might have successfully managed to duck detection but how could the planners of the operation have taken such a big risk? As such it was highly sensitive operation and on top of it the last thing the US would have wanted is to have these choppers shot down by Pakistan. Not just this, Pakistan would have then put two and two together to deduce that the operation was targeted to get Osama and would have immediately smuggled Osama to another place. The embarrassment and consequences of such catastrophe were so enormous that it would have dissuaded even John Rambo to accept such a risky plan.

In addition to this, the 40 minutes operation itself was noisy enough to have alerted the army personnel in the Military Academy located just 800 m away from the site. To believe that they didn’t hear the gunshots and explosions is certainly a big challenge even for people with lowest possible IQ. It would have taken the army personnel less than 5 minutes to reach the spot. Even if the US commando were believed to be prepared to engage and neutralize them, this would have been perceived as a risk not worth taking. Not just risk but this would also have been a big distraction is completing the more important task of getting Osama. Imagine, if the shootout between Pak army and US SEALS had resulted in killing of say 20 odd persons on each side and imagine if taking advantage of the distraction Osama had escaped what embarrassment it would have caused to the US administration? It would have certainly meant curtains for a second term for Obama.

President’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan in his press briefing did mention that Pakistan had started scrambling to put together their assets after detecting air space violation but it was too late. Many analysts have interpreted the term “assets” to mean “fighter jets”. I am surprised how the US media has digested this inconceivable explanation without probing further. There have been reports in the media about the site of operation being cordoned off by the Pakistani Army which means they were in fact facilitating the operation.

My take is that the US must have informed Pakistan just before the Helicopters crossed the border. Even that would have been risky as the Helicopters would have taken around two hours to reach the hideout and there was enough time to smuggle Osama out. However, this possibility would have been taken into account and to prevent that the US would have had the house already surrounded by another group of commandos and would have warned Pakistan with dire consequence against any misadventure. The US would have also instructed Pakistan to provide support for the operation by cordoning off the area to prevent any external help. It is quite possible that Osama and his Al Qaeda colleagues would have had plans in place for eventualities like this and external help would have been just a phone call away. Too much is being made out of the house not having a telephone and internet connection which may be true also but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of mobile phones the most popular means of communication today. To avoid detection, the mobile might have been kept switched off and only to be used in case of emergency.

However, for obvious reasons, it suits both Pakistan and the US to claim that Pakistan had no role to play in the operation. Pakistan in fact is so desperate to hide its role even at the cost of enormous embarrassment it has to face for admitting that it had no knowledge of the operation till the US Choppers left its air space.

We will perhaps never know the real truth but inquisitiveness is our natural instinct and has to be satisfied with or without the real truth. In the absence of the truth, a bit of imagination and a bit of speculation is always helpful. The whole world is happily engaged in exactly that and I am no exception.

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