Osama bin Laden's hideout and the Pakistan question

What did Pakistan know about bin Laden's whereabouts? Lawmakers in Congress demand an answer, and threaten aid restrictions. But for better or for worse, America must support Pakistan.

How could at least some Pakistani officials not have known about the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, right under the nose of that country’s military establishment?

It’s the question ricocheting in Washington, as incredulous lawmakers again point to a “double game” by Islamabad over terrorism. Members of Congress now threaten to restrict billions of dollars in US aid to Pakistan – a move that would worsen one of America’s most troubled, yet important, relationships.

The United States is probing to find out what kind of support system Mr. bin Laden had at his compound deep in Pakistan before he was killed by US Navy SEALs in a raid on May 1.

The Pakistani government said it was surprised – and embarrassed – to find out this week about bin Laden’s compound – near the nation’s capital.

But it’s also important not to let the US-Pakistan relationship sink further. The stakes for America are tremendous. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and Islamic terrorists seek to overthrow the weak democratic government. That’s a direct threat to the US, as well as Pakistan’s neighbors.

At the same time, Pakistan is still the center of global jihad, despite the geographic dispersal of Al Qaeda and the rise of individual terrorists acting on their own. Other terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, hide out in Pakistan. So do some members and leaders of the Afghan Taliban, who kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, terrorists have killed some 30,000 Pakistani civilians and 2,000 police.

The terrorist threat should have Washington and Islamabad walking in lock step, but the two are at their worst relations in years. Even the word “frenemies” may no longer apply.

Pakistan complains of increased US drone attacks and CIA operations on Taliban and Al Qaeda targets as an infringement on its sovereignty. America complains that Pakistani intelligence turns a blind eye to certain terrorist groups and individuals, and even assists them.

The schism hinges on their respective interests in Afghanistan.

Washington is working with its NATO allies to keep the Taliban out of Afghanistan so that the country never again becomes a springboard for Al Qaeda. Islamabad fears that Afghanistan will be too friendly with India, Pakistan’s archenemy.

It’s galling that Pakistan’s prime minister recently traveled to Kabul and reportedly carried the message that Afghanistan should drop the US in favor of a stronger relationship with Pakistan and China. But that message was entirely predictable when you remember the Afghanistan/India problem from Islamabad’s viewpoint.

Much is being said now of America’s opportunity to use its killing of bin Laden as “leverage” to win more cooperation from Pakistan in the antiterrorism campaign. The successful American intelligence and SEALs mission, accomplished brilliantly, certainly makes the Pakistanis look incompetent, or worse.

But that leverage would be misplaced if Washington used it to further counterterrorism cooperation without applying its influence to the problem behind all problems: enmity between Pakistan and India.

A slight warming between Islamabad and New Delhi is under way. In February, Pakistan and India agreed to resume peace talks after they had broken down following the 2008 bombing in Mumbai (Bombay). The two countries are also progressing on closer trade relations.

President Obama, who visited India last year, plans to travel to Pakistan this year. He should work to improve ties between these unfriendly neighbors – for their own sake, but also to make it easier for America’s eventual pullout from Afghanistan.

Back to bin Laden, and what Pakistan knew or didn’t know: If it turns out that some elements of the Pakistani government were complicitous in aiding bin Laden, it will be a further blow to America’s battered trust in Pakistan. But it won’t come as a surprise – just another reminder of a difficult relationship that needs careful management over the long term.

If it turns out that no one in any real authority knew, it will only underscore just how much Pakistan needs America’s help to fend off terrorists.

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