How did Pakistan not know bin Laden was hiding there?

Pakistani intelligence failed to look for Osama, says John Kerry

More than a bit awkward

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The discovery of Osama bin Laden, not in some desolate cave in a lawless tribal borderland, but ensconced comfortably in a suburban neighbourhood in the heart of Pakistan, has led to a single burning question in Washington: how could the Pakistani government, recipient of billions of dollars of American aid, not know that for possibly five years America’s most wanted fugitive was living in plain sight, a short walk from a military academy, no less?

For years, Pakistan denied knowledge of his whereabouts, even while the Pakistani intelligence services stood accused of tipping off al-Qaeda’s leaders about American efforts to find them. Anybody who thought that Pakistan was protecting bin Laden was “smoking something they shouldn’t be smoking,” Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, told CNN in 2010.

But those suspicions about Islamabad turned to outrage this week. Relations had already been sharply deteriorating, with the U.S. accusing Pakistan of not being serious in fighting terror—and Pakistanis outraged over U.S. drone attacks against suspected Pakistani terrorist targets. Now, with the news that bin Laden had been living openly in Pakistan, there were calls in Washington for Congress to limit an aid program that has allotted US$7.5 billion over five years to help strengthen the Pakistani government and win the support of Pakistan’s people. “I think this tells us once again that unfortunately Pakistan, at times, is playing a double game, and that’s very troubling to me,” said Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee. “We clearly need to keep the pressure on Pakistan, and one way to do that is to put more strings attached to the tremendous amount of military aid that we give the country,” she said.

The chairman of the committee, John Kerry, a key advocate of the aid plan, complained that not only did Pakistani intelligence fail to look for bin Laden, but for years fed the U.S. what he called “misdirects”—false information—such as “the notion that he’s out in the western part of the country and they can’t control that and so forth.” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate armed services committee, called on Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to “follow through and ask some very tough questions of his own military and his own intelligence. They’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” For his part, the Pakistani president issued a personal defence: “Some in the U.S. press have suggested that Pakistan lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism, or worse yet that we were disingenuous and actually protected the terrorists we claimed to be pursuing. Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact,” Zardari wrote in the Washington Post.

In the midst of this diplomatic storm, the White House tried to walk a fine line.

On the one hand, administration officials said they would investigate the possibility that Pakistani officials at some level had played a role in protecting bin Laden. “I think it would be premature to rule out the possibility that there were some individuals inside of Pakistan—including within the official Pakistani establishment—who might have been aware of this,” President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, told National Public Radio on Tuesday. “We’re not accusing anybody at this point, but we want to make sure we get to the bottom of this.”

Still, Brennan and other administration officials were also careful to praise Pakistan for its “close co-operation” in counterterrorism activities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized that nothing had changed in U.S. relations with Pakistan: “We remain committed to supporting the people and government of Pakistan as they defend their own democracy against extremism.” The administration also credited Pakistan for providing information that eventually led to the raid. “The Pakistanis, you know, did not know of our interest in the compound, but they did provide us information that helped us develop a clearer focus on this compound over time,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters on Monday.

President Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto—assassinated in a 2007 shooting for which al-Qaeda claimed credit—was eager to share credit for the raid, which some other Pakistanis called a violation of sovereignty. “Although the events of Sunday were not a joint operation, a decade of co-operation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden as a continuing threat to the civilized world. And we in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaeda courier ultimately led to this day,” he wrote in the Post.

The non-confrontational tone of both governments was deliberate, said Tom Sanderson, deputy director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “That is not random. Those statements reflect a desire to quickly move beyond this and repair this relationship.” (Behind the scenes, the administration would press Congress not to jeopardize the money flows, he predicted—but the Government Accountability Office in February reported that only a small fraction of the aid package had actually been paid out, in part due to concerns about corruption in Pakistan.) “Our core interests include getting them to act against al-Qaeda and getting them to act against this amalgam of groups that are attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” Sanderson added. But he noted that the U.S. has little leverage in Islamabad, and for all his supportive words, Zardari is not calling the shots. “The army is the most powerful and important and effective institution,” he said.

Some key congressional leaders also shared the administration’s caution. The chairman of the House intelligence committee, Republican Mike Rogers, warned, “I’d be very careful about saying we’re going to throw them overboard, given how many other targets are really critical for us to go after.” He estimated that another 12 to 20 al-Qaeda leaders of various levels remain in Pakistan. Likewise, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, told reporters on Tuesday it was “premature” to talk about cutting aid to Pakistan. “Here’s the problem: if we don’t [give aid], what then? And that ‘what then’ is really important. Does China step in? Who steps in? Does anybody step in? What will this do?”

There were even calls to use more, not less. Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, proposed that the U.S. should build its relationship with Pakistan—by accelerating aid payments, providing debt relief, reducing drone strikes in tribal areas, and negotiating a free trade agreement. “We should have quiet discussions that would indicate a willingness to raise the stakes if they will shut down Afghan Taliban sanctuaries, and take other steps like slowing nuclear weapons development as well,” O’Hanlon told Maclean’s. “We are at a crossroads and, absent a big idea like this, the likely direction in the relationship is downward.”

Despite his criticism of Islamabad, Kerry also acknowledged that Pakistan paid a price for allowing a U.S. drone campaign against militants that has killed Pakistani civilians. In future relations with Pakistan, he said, “We really have to be careful not to cut off our nose to spite our face.”

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