Paper sovereignty – F.S. Aijazuddin

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ONE’S first instinct, upon being confronted by a 768-page tome of memoirs by a former US president, is to go directly to the Index. In president Barack Obama’s memoir of his presidency A Promised Land, local readers will find seven references to Pakistan (mostly connected with Afghanistan), a fuller cross reference to the Osama bin Laden operation in May 2011, and one to former president Asif Ali Zardari (as many as Meryl Streep).

Obama’s narrative flows easily and, like his physical stride, is loping and casual. He writes as he speaks — with candour, conviction and certitude. The memoirs are actually 1,536 pages long, if one reads the shadowy lines between the lines. His memoirs exude unctuousness, recollected in tranquillity. For example, he asserts: “The United States is not a grand puppet master whimsically pulling the strings of the countries with which it does business. Even governments that rely on our military and economic assistance think first and foremost of their own survival.” One needs to swallow this with a pinch of American gall.

Nothing belies president Obama’s avowal than the mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden after he had been living for nine years on Pakistani soil. Simpletons still believe, that unknown to Pakistan, two US Black Hawk helicopters (with a standby MH-47G Chinook) flew silently from Jalalabad to Abbottabad (90 minutes flying time each way), undetected, as Mathias Rust had done across Russia in May 1987 to land in Red Square. They should read Obama’s candid disclosures.

Obama says that elimination of Osama bin Laden had been one of his election promises. He knew its diplomatic overtones: “It was an open secret that certain elements … maintained links to the Taliban and perhaps even Al Qaeda, sometimes using them as strategic assets to ensure that the Afghan government remained weak and unable to align itself with Pakistan’s number one rival, India. The fact that the Abbottabad compound was just a few miles from the Pakistan military’s equivalent of West Point only heightened the possibility that anything we told the Pakistanis could end up tipping off our target. Whatever we chose to do in Abbottabad, then, would involve violating the territory of a putative ally in the most egregious way possible, short of war.”

Obama’s hesitancy originated from the disastrous attempt in 1980 to rescue US hostages held by Iran, and a similar fiasco in Somalia. Preliminary options were discussed in mid-March 2011. Obama chose Vice Admiral William McRaven to head the mission, aided by the CIA rather than the Pentagon — “to preserve the secrecy of the operation, and deniability if something went awry”.

McRaven had a three-dimensional scale model of Bin Laden’s hideout constructed at Fort Bragg (North Carolina), using data collected by the CIA through aerial photography. There, a team of crack SEALs conducted a number of dress rehearsals. On March 29, Obama’s apprehensions were assuaged after “McRaven emphasised that his planning was built on the premise that his team should avoid a firefight with Pakistani authorities; and if the authorities confronted us on the ground, his inclination would be to have the SEALs hold in place while our diplomats tried to negotiate a safe exit”, as they had done in the Raymond Davis case.

Obama gave his formal approval on April 29. Two days later, on the night of May 1-2, Obama and his team in the White House watched the Abbottabad operation “unfold in real time, with ghostly images moving across the screen”. OBL’s spectre was laid to rest, in a black body bag, but not before the pantomime of a six-foot-two member of McRaven’s team being made to lie “next to the body to compare his height to Bin Laden’s purported six-foot-four frame”. The SEALs had thought of everything, except a measuring tape.

Before the SEALs could return to Jalalabad, news of the raid began to circulate on the internet. “Mike Mullen [Chairman, JCS] had put a call in to Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and while the conversation had been polite, Kayani had requested that we come clean on the raid and its target as quickly as possible in order to help his people manage the reaction of the Pakistani public.”

Obama reserved for himself the president-to-president tele-call: “I expected my most difficult call to be with Pakistan’s beleaguered president, Asif Ali Zardari, who would surely face a backlash at home over our violation of Pakistani sovereignty. When I reached him, however, he expressed congratulations and support. ‘Whatever the fallout,” he said, “it’s very good news.’” Pakistan’s sovereignty proved less than paper thin.

Had Jean Toomer, a half-black American author like Obama, anticipated the sordid OBL episode when he wrote “Sovereign powers, brutal lives, ugly deaths”?