The bin Laden wives: latest pawns in US-Pakistan strife

Pakistan's on-again, off-again permission for the CIA to interview Osama bin Laden's wives points to continued strife between the US and Pakistan. Sen. John Kerry is set to visit there soon.

Anjum Naveed/AP
A Pakistan army soldier secures a street close to the house of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Monday.

With stalled access to Osama bin Laden's wives only the latest manifestation of tension in the US-Pakistan relationship, US Sen. John Kerry is set to visit Pakistan in coming days to try to put the two countries back on a more cooperative path.

The matter of CIA access to the three bin Laden wives – who were detained by the Pakistanis after the US raid May 1 that resulted in the Al Qaeda leader’s death – had not been resolved by the end of Tuesday, with the US still unclear about if and when agents would be able to question the women.

Initial reports were that Pakistan had granted access to the women, but they were soon replaced by signs of wavering out of Pakistan. Then came claims from Islamabad that it had received no “formal” request for access to the wives – all pointing to further evidence of soured relations.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the US is “optimistic that cooperation will continue with regards to access to Mr. bin Laden’s wives.” US intelligence officials posit that, among other things, the women might have useful information concerning whom bin Laden communicated with and who locally knew of the Al Qaeda leader’s residence in the walled compound.

The on-again, off-again permission for access to the wives came a day after Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani railed against the US raid in a speech to parliament, calling it a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

It is into this context of heightened bilateral tensions that Senator Kerry, a frequent emissary into what the White House calls the “Af-Pak” arena, will try to inject some calm and long-term vision.

Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has occasionally been dispatched to Afghanistan when that country’s problematic leader, President Hamid Karzai, has strayed too far from the US and Western project for his country. Kerry is also a co-author of a multibillion-dollar civilian aid package to Pakistan that is designed to boost development and blunt the attraction of the country’s Islamist extremists.

Kerry’s trip takes place as some on Capitol Hill call for big cuts in US aid to Pakistan, which reaches about $3 billion annually between its civilian and military components. The senator’s office refused, for security reasons, to confirm any coming travel plans, but Kerry told reporters last week that he would visit Afghanistan in mid-May.

Despite the harsh words from Islamabad over the secret US raid to get bin Laden, much of the rhetoric is theater, some regional analysts say. The US is in a better position after the raid – which embarrassed Pakistan by revealing the Al Qaeda leader to be living under the military's noses – to pressure Pakistan into closer cooperation than appearances might suggest.

That picture of a Pakistan that is outwardly tough and demanding yet privately ready to cooperate was backed up by press reports out of London Tuesday involving former Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The former military ruler had an agreement with the Bush administration that the US could carry out raids into Pakistani to go after top Al Qaeda leaders including bin Laden, according to former US and Pakistani officials cited Tuesday by The Guardian newspaper.

As part of the deal – which Mr. Musharraf, now living in London, quickly denied – Pakistani officials would harshly criticize any such raids as unilateral actions and violations of sovereignty, for domestic public consumption.

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