The recent killing of Osama bin Laden has engendered speculation about the possible complicity of the Pakistani state in harboring Mr. bin Laden. But that speculation is misplaced and harmful to our future counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan, making us less safe.
We must be very clear on where our strategic differences with Pakistan lie – and combating Al Qaeda is not one of them.
Where Pakistan and US interests diverge
Of course, Pakistan’s strategic interests in certain areas do diverge from our own.
Pakistan has an interest in negotiating a complex series of temporary peace deals with the militant Haqqani network, which attacks American forces in Afghanistan, to ensure that it is not forced to operate on several fronts within Pakistan as it pursues the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan may also seek to leverage the Haqqani network to ensure greater Pakistan-friendly Pashtun participation in any eventual Afghan national government that looks to incorporate and negotiate with former Taliban affiliates, while simultaneously providing Pakistan with a hedge against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has caught more terrorists than any country
But after three joint US-Pakistan operations since 2001 – the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Ramzi bin-al Shibh in Karachi, and Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad – netting three top Al Qaeda figures in three major Pakistani cities in operations led by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a narrative of Pakistani complicity when it comes to Al Qaeda becomes unsustainable.
As Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan noted, “Pakistan has been responsible for capturing and killing more terrorists inside of Pakistan than any country, and it’s by a wide margin.”
Here, US and Pakistani interests are one and the same: If 3,000 American lives demanded that bin Laden be brought to justice, so did the 30,000 Pakistanis killed or injured in the global war on terror since 9/11.
Countering doubts about Pakistani complicity
The disquieting doubts raised by well-meaning analysts revolve around one central theme – the location of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
How can there not have been complicity when Abbottabad is only about 30 miles from the Pakistani capital, and is home to a Pakistani military base, a military academy, and many retired Pakistani officers?
The defense against Pakistan’s complicity starts – and should end – with President Obama’s remarks on the subject that “it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
Pakistan’s provision of intelligence leading to the discovery of bin Laden is incompatible with allegations of complicity.
Further, even after the fact, the ISI admitted it was never aware of bin Laden’s location. “We were never able to put two and two together,” explained an ISI official, “It’s unfortunate but we did not know of the people resident in that compound.”
If CIA didn't know for sure, how could ISI?
To assess the credibility of this claim, and to address the ridiculous notion that the compound’s mere presence, size, and structures such as its exterior walls should have tipped off local Abbotabad residents and military personnel in the area that bin Laden was living within, it’s worth remembering that despite eight months of intensive monitoring by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA), and National Security Agency (NSA), nothing definitively confirmed that bin Laden was at the compound.
CIA Director Leon Panetta noted that even at the time of decision, the CIA was only 60 to 80 percent confident bin Laden was there at all.
In the words of Mr. Brennan describing the reaction in the Situation Room, “there was a tremendous sigh of relief that what we believed and who we believed was in that compound actually was in that compound and was found.”
We cannot afford to take risks with our ally
Because we had forewarned Pakistan that if we had actionable intelligence on bin Laden we would act unilaterally, we were able to take the risk that the Pakistani military would not retaliate. But these are risks we should not and cannot afford to take in the future: Having a situation in which an ally scrambles its fighter jets to prepare to confront helicopters loaded with our best Special Forces teams is an unsustainable way forward.
There are two facts around which there is complete unanimity: The cause of securing our country is not complete, and we will need Pakistan’s cooperation to complete it.
As Senator John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts put it yesterday, “If you want a radical Islamist government having possession of nuclear weapons and running Pakistan, then you can go off in a knee-jerk way that makes matters worse. I’m not making matters worse. And I think we have to be very thoughtful about this.”
For counterterrorism, we need partnership, not allegations
The way forward is not with allegations of complicity but of partnership and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capacity-building assistance for our Pakistani partners. To echo House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, now is the time for “more engagement, not less.”
But we must always remember that what that fundamentally means, beyond security cooperation and particularly in the Pakistan-Afghanistan context, is an emphasis on political solutions and helping the two nations institute the kind of effective governance that will provide their citizens with the benefits of “liberty and justice for all.”
Taha Gaya is the executive director of the Pakistani American Leadership Center (PAL-C), a nonprofit political advocacy organization representing the Pakistani American community to the US government.