By Terrell E. Arnold
“As the dust settles on the ruin of late Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, many questions have been asked. Pakistani authorities have not indicated any awareness of the project, and they are publicly deeply offended by it. Meanwhile, the Chinese obviously have seen the fractured US-Pakistani relationship as an opportunity.
Perhaps the view is speculative, but it does not seem hard to reach a sensible judgment about what was going on before the US raid. So far as Pakistani military authorities were concerned, Osama had to know that his base was being watched all the time. Most likely no one entered or left the compound without being observed, identified, tabulated, tracked, and probably questioned. If Osama and his people in that facility behaved, they were guests in Abbottabad. If they became truly obnoxious, they were really prisoners and could easily be disciplined.
Most likely Osama and his staff did not have telephone or internet connections to the outside world simply because they knew that on such media they could do nothing without being overheard or watched day and night. Good people had to carry instructions in their heads or nothing in the way of message traffic moved in or out. The cook was probably the person most often in touch with the outside world.
What were the benefits of this arrangement to Pakistani intelligence authorities? First, having Osama in that visible compound was far superior to trying to keep tabs on him and his operatives in Waziristan. Second, it was child's play to track his operational activities, if any, by keeping tabs on any people who entered or left the site. Third, Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI was probably not an innocent bystander whose operatives merely observed Osama's traffic; they could easily take advantage of it and by co-opting Osama's messengers they could easily piggyback on his activities. Fourth, it is not out of the question that Pak authorities could have joint ventured operations involving Osama's Taliban contacts in the Afghan frontier regions or deeper in Afghanistan. Finally, it would have been no big deal to interfere with Osama's outside team activities where that better served Pakistani purposes.
Now what? That should be the next question. Where will the central authority of al Qaida-to the extent that it retains one-station itself? Al Qaida operations from the beginning have been naturally decentralized to a great extent. That is because al Qaida largely does not invent the causes it serves. Rather it relies on local groups with local grievances to carry out operations that serve local purposes. Those activities may get media play or official reactions outside the countries of origin, but that would not be al Qaida's doing. How al Qaida might help such local groups and activities is completely scenario driven.
The trick now is to locate and begin keeping effective tabs on al Qaida's new operating center. As the US and Pak authorities pick up the pieces of a relationship badly fragmented by drone attacks and the covert Osama attack, a place to start is remapping the structure of al Qaida. The quickest way for al Qaida to regroup is to work in some existing subordinate location. That could well be reasonably nearby, in Pakistan probably in or near a sizeable city such as Peshawar. It would be hard to re-center in Afghanistan, because the al Qaida presence is reportedly so thin that beefing it up would attract attention.
Even so, the attractions of Afghanistan are enormous. Continued US, NATO and related Afghan support activities are not only natural targets for al Qaida mischief; they provide the environment for ready recruitment of new members to replace losses elsewhere and to augment activities in Afghanistan. The longer and more widely US/NATO forces conduct operations in Afghanistan, the better the recruitment environment for al Qaida. That is to say nothing of possibilities for alliances with disaffected elements of the Taliban. Such attractions might provide a reason for al Qaida reorganizers to build a new core group in the Afghan region, at least for starters. Such prospects do not bode well for the safety of US forces in that region in the near term. It would be prudent to mount an enhanced tracking effort just to determine that such moves and maneuvers are not occurring.
It was obviously so much easier for Pakistanis to keep tabs on al Qaida leadership (whether or not Osama was there) when the Abbottabad compound was home base. It will not be easy to replace that high order of surveillance and opportunity to interfere with al Qaida operations. It is not foregone that, with Chinese interference running high, the US/Pak relationship can be stabilized. However, what could come out of a US/Pakistani reexamination of the al Qaida leadership arrangements might well be a more effective US/Pakistani operation than existed before. Certainly, the injuries to relationships that covert US operations without consultations entail could be reduced and probably overcome by a more open and direct working relationship. For that purpose, both players need better definitions and agreements on what must be shared and coordinated.
However, the lesson for US friends and allies is hardly encouraging. Aside from the discomfiting drone attacks in Pakistan's western frontier region, no such large scale covert US operation has been conducted before in a friendly country. The lesson of the Abbottabad operation is that friendship is no protection if the US sees something in a country that is perceived to threaten some American interest. In case there was any doubt, Obama has reconfirmed the George W. Bush policy of wherever US interests may appear to be threatened, there are no borders.”