by Craig Abernethy
On May 1, President Obama announced to the world that an elite commando group belonging to the US Navy SEALS (“sea, air, land”) had killed Osama bin Laden in a residence located in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city near the capital, a headquarters with big installations of the local army, where it is believed the leader of al Qaeda was living in hiding for more than five years. The military action was carried out in a completely secret manner, without even notifying the Pakistani government. The European powers quickly greeted the end of the hunt for bin Laden as a victory of the “War on Terror.”
Imperialism will attempt to use this political assassination, presented as an act of “justice,” to repair its military power and recall, as Obama said in his speech, that “America can do whatever we set our mind to,” an idea seriously questioned because of the disastrous wars and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are increasingly unpopular. However, this assassination takes place at a time when bin Laden has become a marginal figure, and the main phenomenon of the Muslim world is the popular uprising that led to the downfall of dictators like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, and to the imperialist intervention in Libya.
Beyond the impact of the news and of the immediate success that it means for Obama, it will hardly become a strategic victory that will reverse the decline of US power.
The government has not yet managed to formulate an official account of the events. According to the first version, bin Laden had died as a result of an exchange of fire, but, a few hours later, the White House admitted that he was unarmed, making it obvious that he was deliberately executed, along with other people who were in the residence. It’s just that, as the journalist Robert Fisk says in a note, at a trial bin Laden “would have been able to talk about his contacts with the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan,” about his connections with Saudi intelligence, or even about the never investigated dubious connections of US security agencies and the September 11 attacks, which served to justify the “war on terror” and Bush’s offensive imperialist policy.
Unlike other political assassinations in history, as, for example, that of Che Guevara, or the execution of Saddam Hussein, where the corpse was shown as evidence, so far, the US President has refused to show photos of bin Laden’s corpse. That, together with the disappearance of the body, which was thrown into the Indian Ocean by US soldiers themselves, calls into question whether it really is the chief of al Qaeda. Obama is afraid that pictures of the riddled corpse would not create certainty about its identity, but could ignite a wave of anger and anti-US feeling that would be expressed, for instance, in violent actions in Afghanistan against the occupation troops or in an explosion in Pakistan.
The way the operation was carried out, the conflicting versions among different US government agencies and the lack of tangible proof, are encouraging every kind of conspiracy theory and speculations that, after the first moment of euphoria, could begin to undermine the credibility of the official account. In fact, some questions are already beginning to heard about the self-proclaimed legality of the operation, an example of imperialist arrogance, defended by all the powers of the US government, as a lawful “act of war,” according to the national security doctrine adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers.
A reactionary effect
Domestically, the assassination of bin Laden has triggered a reactionary climate that is an attempt to recreate the jingoism and “national unity” that had been set up after 9/11. This climate is encouraged not only by Obama, but also by the main corporate media that are calling editorially for “celebrating” bin Laden’s disappearance. The aim is to encourage a real national pride in the context of the economic crisis that has seriously struck the United States, taking the unemployment rate to almost 10% and increasing the national debt that is already causing concern among the bond rating agencies (see’>http://www.ft-ci.org/article.php3?id_article=3891″>(see the article).
As with his military escalation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the military incursion in Libya, the Democratic President showed once again that he is following in Bush’s footsteps to try to repair imperialist power. Obama restored not only the “War on Terror,” but also the most brutal methods that accompany it, like the secret jails in Arab countries or Eastern Europe, where CIA and FBI professional interrogators had the go-ahead to torture, just like in the Guantánamo concentration camp. The CIA Director himself and future Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, admitted that the person who provided the information about the possible hideout of bin Laden was subjected to “water-boarding,” among other tortures, 183 times.
Right away, Obama recovered in the polls and forced the Republicans, neo-conservatives and even the Tea Party to congratulate him for having achieved what Bush himself could not get. Even “progressives” accepted the US state terrorist action with the argument that it will allow ending the war in Afghanistan. Obama will try to capitalize on this moment to pass his program of reducing public spending, which includes a cut of $400 billion in the Pentagon budget. However, it seems unlikely that the “bin Laden effect” will remain beyond the next few months and succeed in calming domestic concerns that were key in the most recent congressional elections and are at the base of the deep political and social polarization.
Bin Laden and the crisis of US hegemony
The announcement of the assassination of bin Laden has great symbolic value for the US, although it can hardly be translated with the same force into its practical implications, beginning with the fact that bin Laden’s role in planning and carrying out al Qaeda’s concrete operations has been practically nil, not only because of his nearly ten years of isolation, but because of the very characteristic of al Qaeda as a decentralized organization, with branches in Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula and the Maghreb, that function autonomously.
The operation that killed bin Laden demonstrated the profound contradictions of US foreign policy, intensified by the strategic failure of the war in Iraq. Pakistan, the main US ally in the war in Afghanistan, showed once again that it is playing a double game. In spite of the fact that Ali Zardari’s government is deeply pro-imperialist, and that for a decade the country has gotten between 1 billion and 3 billion dollars annually from the United States for “fighting terrorism,” the intelligence services (ISI) and the army are keeping a historic relationship with the Afghan Taliban, and, in fact, they protected bin Laden. This relationship with the Taliban is concerned with the national interests of Pakistan, which is seeking to improve its regional position by adding Afghanistan to its sphere of influence, and to counteract the weight of its historic rival, India.
The Pakistani government, which has been making an effort to show its commitment to the “War on Terror,” now confronts a very difficult situation. Domestically, its collaboration with Washington, which has changed the country into a base for US military operations, is deeply unpopular and encourages the actions of different Islamist groups. Internationally, Obama’s government is demanding answers about the ISI’s role in hiding bin Laden, and several voices from the political establishment are asking for a reduction of the bloated economic assistance, which is vital for Zardari.
Despite these contradictions, Obama needs Pakistan’s collaboration for his strategy of withdrawal from Afghanistan, that consists in reducing the military presence, emphasizing counterinsurgency actions and negotiating with moderate groups of the Taliban about their incorporation into the Afghan government. This plan was formally announced in February by Hillary Clinton herself, and negotiations are already underway. The changes announced by Obama in his Cabinet, that would make the current CIA Director the Secretary of Defense and put General Petraeus in charge of the CIA, moving him out of Afghanistan, would be functional for this policy. With bin Laden’s disappearance from the scene, Obama hopes he can hide the defeat signified by the Taliban’s return to power, after almost ten years of occupation, that cost around a billion dollars and thousands of casualties among the NATO troops. However, it is not clear that this plan is going to become reality, nor that Karzai’s corrupt government can remain without the material support of US troops.
Crises, wars and revolutionary processes
Bush’s strategy, essentially continued by Obama, of halting the decline of the US through the “War on Terror,” failed to restore the unquestioned hegemony that the United States enjoyed, strengthened by the disappearance of the Soviet Union. This decline intensified with the explosion of the economic crisis that gave rise to the worst recession since the 1930’s.
Although the supposed assassination of bin Laden strengthens the US position for now, in the long run, this effect has no solid bases. Imperialist oppression and that of their ally, the State of Israel, with the complicity of corrupt and autocratic governments, and sharp social polarization, now aggravated by the economic crisis, contributed to the rise of different Islamist variants at the beginning of this decade. These same conditions are the profound driving forces of the process of popular mobilization, that is now sweeping Northern Africa and other Arab countries, and al Qaeda has no influence in this process.
Al Qaeda is a deeply reactionary organization, not only because of the ways it carries out attacks, like those on September 11, the victims of which are mainly workers who have no responsibility for the crimes that imperialist governments commit, but also because of its program of establishing brutally oppressive theocratic states that serve the interests of the ruling elite, as shown by bin Laden’s close connection with the Saudi monarchy and US imperialism up to the beginning of the 1990’s. And then it appeared completely powerless to confront the pro-US Arab governments that it said it was fighting. It is not small elitist groups that can cause historic changes, but the revolutionary action of the toiling and popular masses that, after decades of bourgeois restoration, have begun to return to the scene.