The world after Osama

Al Qaeda is today a more diffused and multi-hub organisation. However, it remains embedded in the Af-Pak region, where it was born.

May 1, Labour Day, marked the first annive-rsary of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s killing. The same evening as strategic thinkers in Delhi sat for a round table discussion with Zalmai Rassoul, the visiting foreign minister of Afghanistan, the news broke of US President Barack Obama’s Kabul visit. The secrecy was underscored by Mr Rassoul missing the event. The White House continued to deny it until after Mr Obama left Kabul, having signed a 10-year Strategic Partnership Agreement between the US and Afghanistan and after an address to the troops at the Bagram airbase.

The signal was clear: the battle against extremism was unfinished and the US was not quitting.
What then is the state of Al Qaeda a year after Osama’s despatch? It is generally acknowledged that following a decade of battering by the US and its allies, Al Qaeda is today a more diffused and multi-hub organisation. It has branches in Europe, penetration of the Muslim community in the US and burgeoning support in Africa and West Asia. However, it remains embedded in the Af-Pak region, where it was born.
Despite former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s insistence in 2005 that Osama was already dead and Pakistan had smashed Al Qaeda’s core, his killing exposed the duplicity of such claims as it was in 2005 itself that Osama’s home was receiving finishing touches in Abbottabad, a cantonment where many serving and retired Pakistani military personnel reside. After initial confusion Pakistan decided to focus on the breach of their sovereignty by the US, ignoring that such breach was being committed by Osama in living in and functioning from Pakistan. Ahmad Rashid, in his book Pakistan on the Brink, likens the embarrassment of the Pakistani military to the ignominy of their defeat at Indian hands in 1971. The sense of helplessness of a force that is the final arbiter of power in that nation turned into anti-US wrath, which continues to poison US-Pakistan relations till today. Even though the strain had begun showing early in 2011 with the Davis shooting incident in Lahore, the Osama episode embittered them to the extent that it just took finally the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in November on the Durand Line by Nato troops to snap them. Since then Pakistan has blocked the vital supply line for ISAF soldiers in Afghanistan, allowed the National Assembly to debate it and make unrealistic recommendations for its re-opening, chief amongst which are an apology, a cessation of drone attacks and a nuclear deal like the one given to India.
Al Qaeda, in fact, used Pakistan’s tribal areas not only for shelter but to construct alliances with new actors like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and old allies like the Haqqanis. Recent information, based on material found at Osama’s residence, reveals that he was in touch with Mullah Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, and Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the erstwhile Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT). Examples of overlap between Al Qaeda and sundry radical Pakistani groups are the recruitment and training of David Headley by the LeT for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and that of Faisal Shazad, the Times Square bomber, by the TTP. Both were finally in touch with Al Qaeda. The news that a Shura Murqaba has been created on December 31, 2011, consisting of senior representatives of the Taliban, TTP, the Haqqanis, Al Qaeda and Maulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the last two favouring the Pakistani Army, for coordination is a sign that Al Qaeda’s influence is regenerating if not intact. It gets space to exist, and now even flourish, as it has embedded itself amongst groups that the Pakistani military protects as allies for influence in Afghanistan.
President Obama’s visit was thus significant to correct the impression that the US and its allies were in the final phase of a withdrawal from the region. The Strategic Partnership Agreement, to be followed by a State of Forces Agreement to enable continued US military presence in Afghanistan, is a good precursor to the Nato Summit in Chicago later this month. A principal agenda item is a $4.2 billion annual demand for the 350,000 man Afghan Army, which will be downsized once the situation stabilises. This is a strong signal to the Taliban and their friends in Pakistan that while the door is open for talks, the pre-condition is, as Mr Obama adumbrated in his Bagram address, abandoning of violence and acceptance of the Afghan rule of law. Meanwhile, a trained and enervated Afghan National Force will man the barricades while the US persists with its counter-terrorism through drones and surgical special operations.
Across the Islamic world, Al Qaeda is confronting the challenge of Arab Spring. Where successful, it has demonstrated that authoritarian regimes can be made to relent by peaceful means, like in Tunisia and Egypt. On the other hand, Libya shows that mindless arming of a regime’s opponents, however despicable its nature, only leads to fragmentation of authority. Syria, Bahrain and Yemen are presenting three disparate challenges, again establishing that no one solution fits all. Al Qaeda is no doubt looking to insert itself wherever opportunity presents, if the aspirations of the masses once aroused are badly thwarted. Turkey and Indonesia are success stories of transition from authoritarian/Army control to democratic Islamic societies. In others, like Egypt, the best organised are the Islamist parties who have yet to work out a modus vivendi with centrist military structures. Complicating these winds of democratic reform is the looming stand-off between the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shia convergence behind Iran.
In the interim, while Osama’s vision of an Islamic Caliphate obtained through violence is being contested, there is undoubtedly a swing across the Islamic lands towards a greater role of faith in personal and public lives. Osama’s ghost will be finally banished only if Arab Spring plays out constructively. India, with the second- or third-largest Sunni and Shia populations of the world, maintains a bemused silence. On the domestic front political parties are rushing to endorse their preferred Muslim candidates for the largely ceremonial post of President, mainly for electoral reasons, as blind to the Uttar Pradesh Muslims’ rejection of tokenism as are the authoritarian rulers whom Osama challenged and the Arab Spring is purging to their people’s aspirations.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

Comments

Sir, With respect I want to

Sir,
With respect I want to point out that Mr KC Singh makes rather weird statements. For example;
Across the Islamic world, Al Qaeda is confronting the challenge of Arab Spring. Where successful, it has demonstrated that authoritarian regimes can be made to relent by peaceful means, like in Tunisia and Egypt.
Now can you say that the revolution in Egypt was peaceful

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