15 MAY 2011


Information released officially about a major clandestine operation is usually open to question. No security agency would want to tip off its adversaries, even its allies, to style, partnerships, and capabilities. That, plus certain incompetence in communications strategy, would apply to the versions given about an Abbottabad attack on one of the most wanted individuals residing in relative tranquility near a major military base.

Any detail would have a serious impact within American and Pakistani establishments and -- more important -- on relations between the U.S. and Pakistani-Afghan set-up.

There are those who doubt that the U.S. was not already informed of the location; an infiltrated Pakistani security service would not risk completely antagonizing one of its main regional partners and -- more to the point -- major benefactor since the Mujahidin fight against Soviet presence and the establishment of a spreading Taliban movement to replace a chaotic warlord conflict.

A number of regional observers believed that Osama bin Laden was operationally delusional since 2005, particularly after his two main "trusted" operatives Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (whose protege was reportedly the "messenger" that inadvertently led to Abbottabad but it was unclear whether he was there during the announced raid), and Seif al-Adel El-Libi, reportedly his "military strategist".

Recent uprisings in Tunis, then Cairo, confirmed that bin Laden was no longer relevant in the Arab world. In an overwhelming popular peaceful display, the hallowed name of Islam was liberated from those who had kidnapped it. No doubt, the sight of Arab youth demanding individual freedom, men and women joining together, Moslems and Christians offering their bodies as human shields to protect each other's prayers, unified voices denouncing despotic rule - even those using religion as a pretext to persecute, dynamic male and female bloggers Twittering their way to Tahrir Square, peaceful - yes peaceful - action for change, clearly repudiated bin Laden's rhetoric that caused as much harm to Arabs and Moslems as it did to his proclaimed adversaries.

Briefly, bin Laden's impact was over long before his announced demise. The main real question may be about timing. Why now?

Such major operations would usually aim at several purposes. More than one whale would be targeted by so many seals.

Only those in the inner circle of authority could identify the intended outcomes; yet they are unlikely to do so even in the most transparent of societies. There are also unintended results which even they, including the President of the U.S. who took the final decision, will be unable to fully control.

Others, like us, could only speculate. Internally in U.S. politics, President Obama got most of the credit for an accomplishment, while CIA Chief Panetta was profusely congratulated. If there was a delay until the media-savvy and popular General Patreus takes over as head of the clandestine venture, the reverse would be more likely. In Pakistan, the vulnerable President Zardari seems to have been spared while Army Chief Kayani and Intelligence Chief General Shuja were cornered for an explanation. But these are peripheral issues, however politically important.

A main outcome is that elimination of the major Al-Qaeda figure in the Afghan-Pakistan region will clear the way for an appropriate exit strategy. Taliban will be more amenable to a discreet deal when it is not hampered by an obligation towards a "historic" benefactor. Hamid Karzai has more leeway to bargain with opposition local chieftains like the Haqqanis, who most likely would now be inclined to accept an agreed reward in the field. The new U.S. Ambassador, Ryan Crocker, a level-headed veteran of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, will be more likely to seize on the available openings, working closely with an equally experienced partner from the Iraq days, General David Patreus, who by then will be planning as usual, this time from a very pivotal spot in McLean, Virginia.

During the last few months, U.S. officials, congressmen, and "think tanks" had intensified their search for an exit strategy from Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, two experienced diplomats with an outstanding international record, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Algerian/U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi published an outcome of efforts by a team of experts that made a close survey of the situation there and proposed an arranged exit, including a deal with the Taliban. What was needed to activate the plan, they explained, was a "Facilitator" that would pave the way and lead the process.

Obviously, the sudden declared death of bin Laden is a major "facilitator" for an agreed exit from Afghanistan. That was an absence of a negative element. What remains to be needed now is a POSITIVE "facilitator". Whatever the name -- mediator, back-channeler, negotiator, facilitator -- could the U.N. offer a framework for the main players to declare victory and redeploy?