In a piece that apparently came out about 2 years before 9/11, the BBC reported that Osama was a widely popular name in the Af-Pak region. People weren’t responding to the idea that the name came from an Arabic word that means “lion” but to one Osama bin Laden, then only a Saudi dissident who was virulently anti-America. I can only imagine how the popularity of the name spiked after 9/11 and now, about 10 hours after Osama bin Laden was finally killed, I wonder whether the name will carry the same resonance a couple of decades from now. I’m also wondering whether devoted tweeters will name their kids Sohaib after the guy who inadvertently ended up live-tweeting the attack on bin Laden (poor guy was sitting around in a coffee shop, without power, annoyed by the sound of helicopters and before he knew it, he was a trending topic).
Since 9/11, everyone’s been looking for bin Laden and no one could believe he hadn’t been found. Not only was his face one of the most recognisable faces in the world, he was about 6’6″ tall, needed dialysis every few days, and there was a reward of “upto $25 million” for information on him. You’d think people would notice a guy like that but no. For ten years, he avoided every American trap and to make sure no one thought he’d died, he’d record video messages that would be circulated in world media. Rumour was that he had a fantastically-outfitted cave in Tora Bora, in Afghanistan’s White Mountains range. Some said that he was constantly on the run, complete with his dialysis machine. India insisted Pakistan was sheltering him. I think the Americans also tentatively floated the notion of bin Laden hiding in Pakistan but I can’t remember precisely. Pakistan obviously denied all this and all eyes were trained upon the ravaged country of Afghanistan. The Taliban were pro Al Quaeda so bin Laden must be there somewhere, hidden by the hollow-cheeked villagers and brutal countryside.
Now it turns out that not only was bin Laden in Pakistan, but he was living in a million-dollar mansion, in a posh little town called Abbottabad, 50 km from Islamabad. Abottabad is known for being a more secure place than Islamabad, partly because it’s where many retired generals from the Pakistan army have their homes and because the Pakistani Military Academy is located here as is the country’s nuclear facility. Apparently, the academy stands within a little more than spitting distance from the mansion that is believed to have been bin Laden’s home for the past six years. I do love the irony in the fact that bin Laden, who was supposedly all about opposing America colonising the Muslim world, found a secure home in a place named after a colonial officer. Incidentally,the only known portrait of James Abbott, founder of Abbottabad and an awful poet, shows the British major dressed as an Indian noble. A smaller turban and a thinner face, and Abbott would have resembled bin Laden.
In his press statement, President Obama (who is now officially the biggest rock star that the US presidency has known) has thanked the Pakistani government but according to this timeline for the mission to kill bin Laden, Pakistan didn’t know about the operation until it happened. This may or may not be the case but I’m far more interested in how Pakistan is going to convince anyone that it was ignorant of bin Laden’s location and explain the fact that bin Laden was living in the cocoon of security provided by a neighbourhood that is an army stronghold. To say that Pakistan didn’t have intelligence about bin Laden living in Abbottabad is incredible. For one thing, it’s not like bin Laden was squatting in the mansion. Secondly, even if no one from his entourage ever stepped in and out of the house (except for the couriers that ultimately led the Americans to bin Laden), what about the domestic help? This is the third world. He was living in a mansion with his family; there had to be servants and presumably they weren’t under house arrest. And frankly a house without domestic help or a house whose help is constantly grounded would be extremely suspicious. It’s impossible that the ISI and the Pakistani army didn’t know bin Laden was in their midst and while they’ll obviously never admit it, presumably they kept American gazes trained on Afghanistan so that Pakistan’s complicity with bin Laden wouldn’t be discovered. Without much help from Pakistani intelligence, it’s not surprising that it’s taken the US so long to find bin Laden. It seems unlikely though that an entire operation would be planned against him in Pakistan without ISI or the army’s knowledge. Now, if ISI did finally sell bin Laden out to the Americans, what convinced them to do it now? How on earth, and with what, did the Americans manage to twist ISI’s arm?
Whatever Pakistan’s role in the ultimate killing of bin Laden, there’s no denying that ISI essentially misled America for years. Surely that’s not cool? Because the fact of the matter is that if bin Laden was chilling in Abbottabad, then what the hell have American troops been doing getting traumatised and killed in Afghanistan for the past 9-odd years? If there was ever a day to watch Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s “Restrepo“, it’s today. It’s a brilliant, poignant documentary that follows a US platoon that has been sent to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a stronghold of the anti-America Afghans. You don’t know what embedded or verité can mean until you’ve seen “Restrepo”. It’s incredible how Hetherington got the footage that he did. He’s so close to the action that you feel as though the empty ammunition shells are clanking around your feet and that mountain dust is covering your eyes rather than simply coating the camera lens. I remember seeing an interview of his when “Restrepo” was nominated where he said that when he’s shooting on his assignments, he’s on “auto-pilot”. The danger would only strike him later, when he’d go through his footage.
Technically, there’s not much of a story to “Restrepo”. The Second Platoon is sent to the Korengal Valley for 15 months. It’s an area where US forces exchange fire with the Afghan rebels/terrorists every single day. Capt. Kearney and his men go to Afghanistan, ready to do some damage to the enemy. They see the region they have to defend and quickly realise this is not a place where textbooks and theories work. In an early encounter, one of the soldiers named Juan Restrepo is killed. When Kearney and his men are able to push the enemy back and set up a new outpost, it’s named O.P. Restrepo in his memory. The film essentially documents what goes into defending and holding on to O.P. Restrepo.
The documentary is fantastic for its intelligent and objective handling of information. Using only interviews and their footage from Afghanistan, Junger and Hetherington give you an impressively nuanced view of the war in Afghanistan. The soldiers are boys who don’t really have any idea of the either the world beyond their homes or of war. One of the gunners was brought up by hippie parents who didn’t let him have even a water gun as a child. In the letters he sends home, he draws the mountains of Korengal as a majestic, icily serene landscape. Capt. Kearney is seen trying to win over the elders of the area and, using just a few throwaway sentences spoken by Kearney to reassure the elders, Junger and Hetherington let us know that Kearney’s predecessor was known for summarily picking up locals and shipping them out for interrogation. But the patience and politeness of the first meetings crumbles little by little. In one later meeting, the elders ask Kearney why the Americans have picked up one of the young men of the village. At first Kearney can’t remember who they’re talking about. One of his soldiers reminds him and Kearney turns to the elder and says abruptly, “He’s been taken because I saw with my own eyes a video where he cuts off people’s heads.” Even as he hears Kearney’s answer translated being translated for him, the elder smiles. Because he knew? Because he expects Americans to be rude to him and then come up with stories to justify the behaviour? Because he’s mocking Kearney? Who knows.
What “Restrepo” really impresses upon the viewer is the futility of the entire situation. No one understands the other. The Americans are working through interpreters whose English is wonky at best. They are flatly unable to build any kind of rapport with the locals. The Afghans don’t see why they should be grateful for American presence when it’s essentially leading to people dying because of their bombs. They do their best to wangle money out of them and pass information to the rebels. No one offers any information to the Americans. Apparently, no one knows anything and yet everyone seems complicit. As the months wear on, the soldiers become tired, wide-eyed, suspicious, violent even at leisure. After one gunfight, one of them says being shot at and surviving is the best adrenalin rush ever, more of high than crack or any other drug. He’s asked how he will adjust to civilian life. “I have no fucking idea,” he answers. But of course, when it’s time to go home, they’re thrilled and relieved. No one wants to stay there and yet, even once they’re home, they’ve carried the horrors of Afghanistan back with them. Cortez, a ridiculously cute soldier, says with a charming smile that he can’t sleep, despite having tried four different sleeping pills. He’d rather not sleep than see the nightmares from Afghanistan that he does when his eyes close.
You see how many people die and are injured just to hold on to O.P. Restrepo and you have to wonder how America hoped to do this across an entire country. They’ve been bombing the mountains and losing lives for years, and all they can show for it are outposts like Restrepo that are tenuous holds upon the region at best. The soldiers say they’ve come to Afghanistan for their country. Their country sent them to Afghanistan to find and kill (among others, admittedly) a very tall, thin man with a beard and mobile dialysis who actually wasn’t even there.
Ultimately, it took less than 40 minutes for the Americans to kill Osama. There was a helicopter strike and one of the crafts crashed, according to local reports. The Pakistani army has apparently said that it was not one of theirs. There was a gunfight that lasted four to five minutes, during which one of bin Laden’s sons, two couriers, a woman who was used as a human shield and bin Laden were killed. Two other women, presumably at least one of them is one of bin Laden’s wives, were injured. Bin Laden was killed with a head shot.
His body was buried at sea earlier today. Saudi Arabia has refused his remains.