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Tough US question for Pakistan: How did Osama bin Laden hide in plain sight?

The positive spin emanating from Pakistan and the US after Osama bin Laden's death barely masks the recent lack of cooperation and deep mistrust between the countries.

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The foreign ministry statement further lauds the “extremely effective intelligence sharing” between Pakistan and the US, among other countries, in international efforts against terrorism.

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But it is in fact a lack of intelligence cooperation in recent years – and if anything, mounting mistrust between the two countries’ intelligence and military structures – that stand out once again in the wake of what appears to have been a unilateral US operation, regional analysts say.

“No words from the US will be enough for those in Pakistan who already see every US action as a threat,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security and Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an email commentary Monday on the ramifications of bin Laden’s killing. “The circumstances of bin Laden’s death also make it clear that the US still has serious problems in getting support from Pakistan, and are yet another reflection of tensions between the US and Pakistan over the failures of the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] and Pakistani military to act on their own.

The never-tension-free US-Pakistan relations were already at a low point this year over the case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was detained by Pakistani authorities after he killed two men tailing him in Lahore who turned out to be Pakistani agents. Mr. Davis was eventually freed after blood money was paid to the deceased men’s families, but not before bilateral relations nearly snapped.

Another 'unilateral' US operation

Bin Laden’s killing looks at the end of the day to have been the same kind of “unilateral” US operation that so annoyed Pakistan in the Davis case, notes Heritage’s Ms. Curtis.

“US-Pakistan relations had been going pretty badly and then took another turn for the worse over the Raymond Davis issue,” she says, “and it largely comes down to the tensions over US unilateral operations in Pakistan.”

Going ahead, as the two countries assess the bin Laden operation – and given President Obama’s clear indication Sunday night that US operations inside Pakistan will proceed when US national security is at stake – scenarios exist by which relations either improve or deteriorate further, regional analysts suggest.

“The fact Osama bin Laden was indeed in Pakistan when officials insisted he wasn’t should give the US more leeway to pressure Pakistan” on everything from extremists inside the country to cooperation on the war in Afghanistan, Curtis says.

If bin Laden’s death helps “quiet some of the conspiracy theories in Pakistan against the US,” that should give the government some room for upping cooperation with the US, she says.

On the other hand, if the operation unleashes a fresh round of criticisms of bilateral cooperation and demands for Pakistan to “assert its sovereignty” in response to US operations, that would suggest a downward spiral ahead.

“That would be a pretty strong signal,” Curtis says, “that US-Pakistan relations are still moving in the wrong direction.”

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