Bin Laden’s killing: national sovereignty as notional fraud

Was the US-led operation that killed Osama Bin Laden a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty?

A policeman looks on as the building where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed is demolished in Abbottabad
The building where Osama bin Laden was killed was demolished in Abbottabad, February 26, 2012 [Reuters]

A preliminary reading of Pakistan’s Abbottabad Commission (PAC) instituted to ascertain the May 2011 incident in which the US conducted a covert military operation to kill Osama bin Laden, reveals a number of things – one being that the idea of national sovereignty is a notional fraud.

A nation-state is not sovereign in its affairs. In practice it means a mightier or the mightiest nation-state, regardless of law and ethics, may ‘sovereignly’ decide what is good for its own nation and by extension for the international community – which in itself means a handful of Western plutocracies.

Beyond the dictum that might is right, Bin Laden’s killing shows that the existing international institutions are well behind the events of the 21st century, which is evident in the helpless statement of local Chief Minister (P. 201): ‘an FIR could not be registered against President Obama…Hillary Clinton, or US forces’.

The US’ successful operation shows that the official distinction between government and civil society, state and non-state actors, national and international is fragile. 

Before proceeding, some clarifications must be made. The Abbottabad Commission Report (ACR), obtained by Al Jazeera, is far from complete. For instance, page 197 is missing. Table of Contents mentions Executive Summary to be available on page 15 which, however, is blank. Also, the ACR, comprising 336 pages and 32 Chapters, doesn’t have any annex or appendix at the end although it mentions several of them (e.g., on p. 132, 165, & 214). Blatantly honest, the ACR is on occasions inconsistent. Regarding the number of Pakistani citizens killed it gives the figure of 4 on page 244 and of 3 on page 305.  Importantly, the US refused to cooperate with the Abbottabad Commission.

Sovereignty: notional, notional, and imperial

The key aim of the ACR is to assuage humiliation and embarrassment Pakistan faced: humiliation because the US operation took place on its soil; embarrassment because people didn’t know Bin Laden lived there. Its primary audience is ‘the people of Pakistan [who] were outraged on learning the covert, deliberate and major violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’ (P. 102 ACR report) by the US which regarded Pakistan as a ‘friend’ in its War on Terror. In fact, in 2004, Pakistan was given the status of a major non-NATO ally. From the perspective of non-powerful nation-states as well as international norms and law, clearly it was a subversion of Pakistan’s sovereignty. To analyse this is to ask what sovereignty means.

According to Stephen Krasner, the former Director of Policy Planning with the US Department of State, sovereignty is used in four ways – domestic sovereignty, the exercise of authority within a specific state; interdependent sovereignty, the exercise of authority to control passages across national borders; international sovereignty, recognition of one state by other states, and Westphalian sovereignty, exclusion of outside forces in the execution of domestic authority. These four interrelated meanings of sovereignty respectively connote territory, control, recognition and autonomy.

The ACR’s mention of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty mainly refers to Westphalian sovereignty which assumes juridical equality among nation-states. However, the reality behind this assumed equality is that some states are more powerful than others. That is, the stark asymmetry of power makes a given state powerful enough to undermine the sovereignty of others. Krasner, therefore, calls such sovereignty ‘organised hypocrisy’. Employing several case studies, he argues that many countries of Europe, especially Eastern and Central, ‘never enjoyed Westphalian sovereignty for a single moment of their existence as international legal sovereigns’.

What sustains this hypocrisy is the existence of an imperial sovereignty currently presided over by the US. So overwhelming is this imperial sovereignty that soon after the US operation, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UK told media that it happened with Pakistan’s ‘consent’. The US’ declaration that they hadn’t secured any such consent left Pakistan baffled, to say the least. No Pakistani official ever called the US operation a violation of sovereignty; it was Pakistan’s Parliament which, 11 days after the operation, named it so (p. 253 of ACR).

The exercise of imperial sovereignty is not always and necessarily coercive; it can also be ‘voluntary’. To attack Afghanistan in 2001, India voluntarily offered its ‘airspace, intelligence, even military support’ to the US. The magazine India Today dubbed the US refusal as follows: ‘America can’t see the true friend in the fog of war’.

The recent case of rerouting the private plane carrying Evo Morales, Bolivia’s President, from Russia to his home country and the refusal by many European countries, including France, to enter their air spaces demonstrates how imperial sovereignty works. While Bolivia’s vice president called the plane’s rerouting as being ‘kidnapped by imperialism’, this didn’t become a headline in the French media.

The Absent Universal Institution

To say that the current system of the nation-states is based on organised hypocrisy presided over by an imperial sovereignty is not sufficient. How about international law, norms and ethics? The ACR cites views of many prominent scholars and legal experts, Pakistani as well as international, about the covert operation and the killings, including of 3/4 Pakistani citizens. All these citations regard the operation as a violation of international law. On page 302, it mentions ‘increasingly criminal and pathological nature of US policies’. Yet, the Pakistani government made no effort to raise it in the international forums, political or legal. In fact, it did not even seek the legal opinion from its own Ministry of Law (p. 219). 

In this context, the helpless statement of the local Chief Minister that ‘an FIR could not be registered against President Obama…Hillary Clinton, or US forces’ (p. 102) is worth noticing. What he meant was that a legal case could not be lodged at the level of the province whose Chief Minister he was. However, the question is: is there an effective, accessible international body or universal institution where it could be pursued to ensure accountability, transparency and justice for the people across the globe?

How do we resolve the conflicting accounts of the US’ killing operation – a planned ‘assassination’ to some, ‘act of national self-defence’ to the US (p. 257)? How and in which forums can the contentious issue that drone attacks are legal according the US law and illegal according to international law, as the ARC mentions (p.201), be debated and defined? Are existing international institutions inadequate, if not utterly out-dated, in addressing such questions? More importantly, what primarily guides the existing international institutions -principles, ethics or naked national interests?

Where is the Non-State?

Contrary to the official and pervasive distinction between government and civil society, state and non-state actors, national and international, the ACR details how they can be confusing and fragile. The key breakthrough to the location of Bin Laden’s residence and his own identification was provided by a Pakistani doctor who headed the vaccination program launched, in association with the USAID, by the NGO, Save the Children (ch. 12). The ACR notes ‘deeper US penetration in Pakistan’ (p. 327) in various forms.

According to a top official of Pakistan’s intelligence, the outfit, the Haqqani network was jointly created by the US and Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan had indeed invited the founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, for dinner to the White House. Pakistan as well as the UK and Italy, the ACR records, had been in touch with the non-fighting members of the Haqqani network whose names did not figure in the sanction list of the United Nations (p.202). The current bitter animosity between Pakistan and the US is prefaced by an intimate friendship between the two in the past.

Returning to the issue of sovereignty, key subject of the ACR, Stephen Krasner appropriately observed: ‘There are no universal structures that can authoritatively resolve conflicts’. The momentous episode of Bin Laden’s killing and the issue of sovereignty it raises urgently points to the need for forging a universal institution at the centre of which should be the fair pursuit of global justice – not the exaggeration of raw national interest, but the defining feature of the current world system of nation-states. To this end, the termination of mutual hostility between India and Pakistan, which the report briefly refers to, should be a stepping-stone to inaugurate a post-nationalist regional confederation.   

Many associated or believed to be associated with world’s most wanted man were sent to Guantanamo detention centre where the distinction between life and death seemed so slim.  From the thick descriptions in Chapter 2 and 3 in the ACR, it appears that Bin Laden had to build his own detention centre; the notable difference being that in the Abbottabad house he lived in he was both the jailer and the jailed. 

Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and a lecturer at Monash University, Australia and author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton University Press, 2009) which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the best study in the field of Social Sciences. Currently, he is finishing a book manuscript on theory and practice of critique in modernity and Islamic tradition.