Most Americans see the death of Osama bin Laden as an unambiguously positive event. The world’s most wanted terrorist, the man who orchestrated the deaths of thousands of innocent people, was brought to justice after a ten year manhunt. To many Pakistanis, however, the American operation evokes a complicated set of contradictory emotions. While there is certainly relief that a violent terrorist is no longer a threat, this relief is coupled with the embarrassment that he was found hiding in Abbottabad. Many in the Pakistani military consider the event humiliating. The fact that bin Laden was killed in a raid carried out without the cooperation or consent of Pakistani officials is seen as the right outcome, but the wrong process.
In his book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama notes the human desire for “intersubjective recognition, either of their own worth, or the worth of their gods, laws, customs, and ways of life” as a basic building block of political development. He goes on to explain that “the desire for recognition ensures that politics will never be reducible to simple economic self-interest.” Viewed through this lens, the May operation that killed Osama bin Laden takes on a meaning in Pakistan much different from the basic “law and order” narrative that informs American understanding of the event.
The midnight raid on Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was carried out without informing the Pakistani government. Following the operation, Admiral Mullen stated “we should not underestimate the humbling experience that this is, and in fact the internal soul-searching that’s going on inside the Pakistani military right now.”
Unfortunately, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Douglas E. Lute, the US did just that.
Responding to questions from the audience, Mr. Lute acknowledged that the administration failed to anticipate the depth of embarrassment suffered by Pakistan’s military by the revelation that Bin Laden had lived comfortably and with local support in a fortress-like home near a leading Pakistani military academy for more than five years, and that American commandos swooped into their country on a two-and-a-half hour mission undetected and unchallenged.
“We underestimated the humiliation factor,” he said. That reaction has prompted Pakistan’s military to take several steps since the raid to recalibrate its relationship with Washington and distance itself from the Pentagon, including expelling some 150 American Special Forces trainers for Pakistani paramilitary troops.
Najam Sethi, Senior Fellow at The New America Foundation, suggests in The Friday Times that the next time the US tries to go it alone, things might not turn out so well.
A single spark – power shortages, inflation, natural calamity, assassination, institutional gridlock or confrontation – could light a prairie fire of discontent. More probably, an outrageous unilateral interventionist act by the US – like the OBL Abbottabad raid or boots on ground in Waziristan – would provoke a media driven wave of revulsion and anger against the US and also, more pointedly, against the Zardari regime for its abject helplessness. The sentiment that would sweep the country would compel all the domestic players to scramble and exploit openings for their narrow party political or institutional interests rather than band together and build a national consensus that indirectly bails out the Zardari regime.
As Washington debates future aid and operations in Pakistan, American lawmakers should remember Fukuyama’s observation that “politics will never be reducible to simple economic self-interest.” The ‘dignity gap’ that we identified following the arrest of Raymond Davis remains an important determinate of how US-Pakistan relations will develop. Another perceived blow to Pakistan’s dignity of the magnitude of Raymond Davis or Abbottabad, however, would do more than damage US-Pakistan relations. As Najam Sethi warns, it could cut down Pakistan’s fragile democracy before it has a chance to firmly take root. If that happens, the US and Pakistan will both lose.