The Abbotabad raid was an act of profound symbolic importance. Its immediate material impact on terrorism is not much. But its symbolic impact will have material consequences in time. The greatest impact will not be in Pakistan or in the Muslim world. The greatest impact will be in America itself.
American sportsmanship in the face of Pakistan’s double game was fraying before the raid and the exposure of Osama bin Laden’s residence with make it fray a little more. But the basic realities that forced Americans to be good sports in the first place have not changed.
The killing of Osama bin Laden will not significantly affect the terrorist operations taking place inside and out of Pakistan. Bin Laden’s role as a leading operational commander of jihadi organizations had faded years ago. The exposure of his safe house half a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy is truly surprising. While there is no reason to expect Pakistan army practices or the U.S.-Pakistan relationship to change, the facts revealed do add some important details to our understanding of the Pakistan army. There are rules of the game between Pakistan and America. Pakistan’s hiding of Osama bin Laden and America’s raid strain the rules, but are, nonetheless, parts of the game. The United States has known about the possibility of bin Laden’s presence in Abottabad for months, if not years, yet has continued its aid. Pakistan is more populous and more powerful than any state the United States has actually fought since 1945, and that allows Pakistan to get away with things smaller and weaker states cannot.
Bin Laden’s home was located within the Abbotabad Cantonment, a large military area. While civilians do live within the cantonment, it is a high security zone and it would have been impossible for anyone to build such a large house without the close scrutiny of security agencies. Such a sensitive location cannot be controlled by a faction within the army, but only by the army chief. General Musharraf built bin Laden’s mansion, and is now pretending otherwise in exile in Britain. The question is why he built it where he did, since he could have built it anywhere. One must recognize the sentimentality of Musharraf’s choice.
Bin Laden was kept next to the alma mater of the officer corps. The location of bin Laden’s residence would have been known to a limited circle within the Army and ISI. It would certainly not be known to the future military officers in the Pakistan Military Academy. But the limited circle which would have known the secret is also the circle in which state power in Pakistan was and is vested. Musharraf would need the support of this circle to remain in power and continue his policies, as would the current Army chief, General Kayani. Within that circle, which will have viewed Osama bin Laden with awe and admiration, the location of the residence would have been an emotional salve for the humiliating collaboration with America.
The American raid is humiliation for the Pakistan Army. But it has suffered humiliations before and come out unscathed in the Pakistani power structure. After losing his initial gains in the Kargil War in July 1999, Musharraf went on to stage his coup in October of that year. The Pakistan army will recover from this setback. Civilian critics can be ignored or kept in check. Popular anger is focused on America and can be kept that way with modest propaganda exercises.
But the raid will have a major impact on American domestic politics. Bizarre and radically irrational trends were under way in the American political scene in the weeks before the raid. Donald Trump had gained the lead among Republican presidential contenders by raising questions about Obama’s place of birth. A quarter of Americans last year believed that Obama was not born in the United States despite his Hawaiian certificate of live birth. In the months after Obama’s inauguration, his popularity rose. But then anxiety and insecurity overtook the American electorate, particularly among European Americans. In the 2008 presidential election, Obama won 43% of white votes. In the 2010 House of Representatives election only 37% of whites voted for the Democrats while 60% voted Republican. This was the highest percentage of white support for Republicans in a House election in the history of American elections. African American support for Obama and the Democrats was the same in 2010 as 2008, though their turnout was less.
This phenomenon cannot be explained simply as increased racism or as a result of Obama’s failures. While American society is not free of racial bias, Obama did win in 2008 and rose in popularity for months afterwards. A phenomenon like racism should not swing wildly over months. As for Obama’s policies, he moved exactly in the direction he promised during the 2008 campaign, and did compromise a great deal in the face of conservative opposition. No one who voted for Obama in 2008 could have been surprised by his policies. As for continuing high unemployment, very few believed in 2008 that a quick return to normalcy was possible, no matter what the government did.
America’s ethnic demographics are changing. European Americans are a minority in California and are down to two-thirds nationwide. This year or next, the number of European American newborns will be less than half the American total. Transitions of this magnitude rarely take place smoothly. Indeed, America is remarkably calm under the circumstances.
The Abbotabad raid led by Obama and its celebration afterward was a step in forging a new American multi-racial identity. That an African American president acted out a heroic role will soothe the fears of enough European-Americans to form a solid center in the American political spectrum, for now.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.