Well, obviously it’s only been an hour or two since this whole thing was announced, and we know very little at this point. It would behoove everyone, including myself, to be cautionary in their pronouncements and “lessons” from this episode. To that end, I’m thinking more in terms of questions than answers.
Question 1: Does this mean the U.S. can leave the region?
When Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan with the “surge”, there were, broadly speaking, two lines of thought on the decision. One was that Obama is a Hillary-ite neocon Democrat. The other was that Obama didn’t want to appear soft on terror/the war(s), lest he be outflanked by the Republicans on the issue.
Well, this event now affords us the opportunity to see which of those interpretations was right. If the surge was motivated mostly by domestic political considerations, rather than international security considerations, we should see a close-to-immediate decreasing American presence in the region (“immediate” in international political terms). This is because no matter what Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich say, Obama has, for domestic purposes, won the so-called war on terror. Not objectively, but symbolically. And frankly, all of American politics runs on symbols. If — again, big if — Obama wants to get out of the region, this is the best excuse he could find.
Question 2: Is Obama’s re-election guaranteed?
In my view, yes, essentially. All those questions about how much he really is an American can now be answered in a debate or news-cycle-soundbite very easily. “I got him”. That’s it. That’s all he needs to say.
Question 3: What will the dominant reaction to Pakistan’s role in this be?
Some will say, “Look, Pakistan helped! Couldn’t have done it without ’em! Brilliant! Give them more aid!”. The GHQ will be pushing this logic, I can promise you. Others will say “What the hell was he doing there in the first place, eh? And given that there’s plenty more where that came from, we should escalate! Screw them Pakis!”. I’m paraphrasing of course. But only just.
The rest of us will be somewhere in the middle, dazed and confused as always.
Question 4: Who will give the American media geography lessons?
I don’t watch cable news at the best of times, but when something really big happens, I stay away from it like the plague. Nevertheless, through Twitter, I have learned that people like Wolf Blitzer are calling Abbottabad a suburb of Islamabad. Sigh. It’s not. Please go to maps.google.com if it helps. Abbottabad is about as close to Peshawar as it is Islamabad.
Question 5: Isn’t the best place to hide someone in a big city?
I’ve always told people that I thought Bin Laden would be in a place like Karachi – dense but sprawling at the same time, massive but small. You can hide there, trust me. Get one of your lieutenant’s lieutenants to find you an apartment, and never leave. You’d never be found, as long as you keep your mouth shut. The conventional wisdom, on the other hand, is that geographically withdrawn areas like FATA are a better bet. Tribal regions are well and good, except when the world’s biggest superpower is looking for you, in which case you get more and more isolated and circumscribed with respect to where you can go and be.
Well, looks like both the conventional wisdom and I were wrong. Abbottabad is not the tribal areas but it’s hardly Karachi. It’s a smallish town. I dunno what the American equivalent would be: Columbus? Austin? Whatever.
Question 6: What does this mean for the so-called war on terror?
It basically means nothing as far as the Americans are concerned. Objectively, not symbolically, al-Qaeda will not be affected by the death of Bin Laden. It is an industry as much as it is a firm. Software would not stop being developed tomorrow if Steve Jobs was killed. Same thing here. Americans are as likely be killed by an al-Qaeda attack tomorrow as they were today. Which is to say, not very likely.
For Pakistanis, it likely means more suicide bombings. Every time there is a so-called “success” in this war, from “liberating” Lal Masjid to killing Baitullah Mehsud, there is increased violence, as militant groups try to remind everyone they’re still around and not going anywhere. I have no reason to expect that that pattern will change.