Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.06.03

Killing Osama bin Laden

U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden on May 2. The operation took place in Abbottabad, located only 50 kilometers from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, in a hideaway near Pakistani military facilities. Because the U.S. operation did not have the prior consent of Pakistan's government, Pakistanis were extremely upset about the violation of their sovereignty and, subsequently, the parliament adopted a resolution criticizing the United States. Even, now, several weeks later, the Pakistanis are still angry. Japanese international law experts have asserted that this action by U.S. military forces absent Pakistan's prior consent can be interpreted as having violated international law.

This U.S. military action appears to be typical conduct of superpower, oblivious to the sentiments of other countries, but it was much hailed in the U.S. Over 90% of Americans support the action due to their hatred of bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks; there have been very few criticisms from the American media. Let's look at what the United States could theoretically argue to defend its action. Here, I am speculating in part.

One day after the killing of bin Laden, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Pakistani President Asi Alif Zardari. This was a public statement of the President. He stated that it is important for the international community to fight terrorism, that Pakistan has paid an enormous price for its stand against terrorism, and that it will continue its fight. He also pointed out that although the events of Sunday were not a joint operation, a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan had led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. The op-ed does not criticize U.S. actions, thereby conferring on the U.S. after-the-fact approval.

President Zardari wrote this statement immediately after the U.S. action, possibly because President Obama had called him to ask for his understanding about the U.S. not having sought a prior permission and because, in response, President Zardari acquiesced to President Obama's request This is just some speculation on my part but the United States expected that the Pakistanis would certainly react with anti-American sentiments and that the U.S. would try its utmost to assuage those sentiments.

Leaving aside how international law judges after-the-fact approval, the United States may lodge the following rebuttals, to list just a few and in no particular order. First, the United States had to conduct the raid under absolute secrecy. Some may point out that there is an inconsistency about the U.S. collaborating with Pakistan in information gathering, while not cooperating with them in the raid itself; however, it will be difficult for Pakistan to rebut this sort of claim that the action had to be secret.

Second, it was failure on Pakistan's part that it was not able to prevent bin Laden from coming into the country and arrest him subsequently. To put it bluntly, Pakistan did not carry out its own obligations and, therefore, it has no right to criticize the U.S. action. As for Pakistan performing its obligations, however, that is more easily said than done; even if Pakistan believes that it was actually negligent, it cannot admit so publicly.

Third, the United States could argue that the situation was an emergency - that bin Laden's presence was extremely dangerous and that eliminating this danger was necessary for the international community, thus requiring extraordinary measures.

These are some of the arguments available to the United States, but are not necessarily equivalent to those that will actually be asserted. Not everything can be said publicly. Even if the U.S. Congress and media have pointed out Pakistan's failure rather frankly but the Obama administration has not rebutted the arguments that the U.S. violated international law nor has it criticized the Pakistani government. Though I have not researched these reactions thoroughly, such a restrained position of the Obama Administration seems to be driven by necessity.

Pakistan is in a complicated position - while keeping its traditional friendly relations with China, it is cooperating with the U.S. with respect to Afghanistan. It has unresolved issues with its archenemy, India, and it has complicated relations with Afghanistan. Domestically, it has active Islamic fundamentalists, as well as Al Qaeda formerly headed by bin Laden. So, for Pakistan, dealing with the aftermath of the killing of bin Laden is very difficult.

Not directly related to the U.S. action, if the Pakistani political situation changes and Islamic fundamentalists were to gain power, especially over the military, control of its nuclear weapons would be endangered. So, Pakistan's political stability is highly important to the international community.

The actions of the U.S. cannot be praised whole-heartedly. It is nauseating that the U.S. shot and killed an unarmed bin Laden on the spot. I cannot imagine what kind of excuses can be made. But, overall, aside from that, I appreciate the fact that the U.S. government carried out this difficult mission successfully and is paying the utmost attention to its relations with Pakistan.