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.

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
A Pakistani soldier and policemen stand near the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden had been living, on Monday, May 2.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
US Government

The accolades between the United States and Pakistan were fast and effusive over the US military operation that killed Osama bin Laden Sunday in Pakistan.

But only the days and months ahead will tell if the mutual praise was simply a temporary glow in a deeply troubled relationship between the US and the country that remains, even with the terror figure’s death, the epicenter of Islamist extremism.

One particularly gnawing question for the US, some analysts say, will be: How is it that Pakistani officials insisted for years that Mr. bin Laden was not on their territory, even as he built and inhabited a huge, walled compound in a city outside the country’s capital that is home to the Army’s military academy and many high-ranking Pakistani military officials?

“Why was Osama bin Laden able to live, and apparently for some time, in a mansion so close to a military garrison in a major city?” says Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “That’s the type of question the Pakistanis are going to have to face as the two countries assess all the implications of this operation.”

Still, on Monday the immediate official statements on the bilateral relationship were glowing. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lauded “our close cooperation with Pakistan” and concluded by asserting that “we are committed to our partnership.” That followed President Obama’s positive remarks Sunday night about Pakistan’s cooperation in the run-up to the day’s secret mission.

In remarks via telephone with Obama after the operation’s successful conclusion, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said the demise of the Al Qaeda leader marked a good day for both countries, according to the White House.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement praising the operation and reaffirming Pakistan’s commitment to assisting the international battle to “eliminate terrorism.”

Al Qaeda at war with Pakistan

The statement fleshes out Obama’s observation Sunday that Al Qaeda is as much at war with Pakistan as it is with the US, noting that nearly 30,000 Pakistani civilians (almost 10 times the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attacks) have died in Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks in the country in recent years.

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

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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