Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1. (Source: talkingpointsmemo.com)
The news of Osama bin Laden’s death sent shockwaves through the United States. Barack Obama’s announcement of the mass killer’s demise was amazing and exhilarating to most Americans, and gave the President strong new legitimacy as the country’s leader and commander-in-chief.
But it also presents a tricky and troubling question: If bin Laden has been hiding in a compound in Pakistan (see picture) for quite some time now, how did Pakistan not notice? Or more worryingly, why did they not tell the US if they knew where bin Laden was hiding?
Osama was tracked down to a modest city in Pakistan called Abbottabad. It’s not particularly surprising or alarming that bin Laden was found in Pakistan. What is frightening is that he was hiding in the middle of a good-size town that is only around 50 km away from the capital of Islamabad. What’s more, the compound in which bin Laden concealed himself was only around half a mile away from a major military training academy.
All of this adds up to yet more turbulence in the already complex and conflicted relationship between the United States and Pakistan. As I mentioned in a previous post, things have been tough between America and Pakistan as of late, and the discovery of bin Laden is unlikely to help things much.
So far, Pakistan has played a key role in counter-terrorism operations and provision of intelligence to the US. Since the alliance between the two countries began after the September 11 attacks, Pakistan has generally assisted American forces in the fight against terrorism in the area. So the question of why they did nothing and said nothing about bin Laden is an important one. Bin Laden’s compound, which burned trash, had holes rather than windows, and featured walls up to 18 feet high, is hardly covert or discrete. And being just down the road from the Pakistan Military Academy, and located in a town known as a military stronghold, it seems ludicrous to say that no one in Pakistani law enforcement had any idea.
Which leads to two possible answers as to why Pakistan’s lips were sealed about bin Laden: Either the Pakistani military and intelligence officials were incompetent, or they were intentionally harboring the most notorious terrorist in the world. Both possibilities are grim ones. Pakistani officials have also been questioning why the United States didn’t give them some warning or wait for permission to carry out such an operation within Pakistan’s borders. This is an understandable desire on that country’s part, but there are good reasons why they weren’t told.
As I also mentioned in the above previous post, a serious trust gap is widening between the US and Pakistan. While neither side is directly scorning or condemning the other at this point, both sides are uncomfortable with one another. American leaders feel that Pakistan is not consistent in their handling of terrorism and in their alliance with the US. Pakistan, on the other hand, sees America as overstepping its boundaries with civilian collateral from US drone strikes, the discovery of a number of CIA agents operating in secret within their borders, and a general distrust of Pakistan’s leadership, especially the ISI.
This led US officials, and rightly so, to refrain from informing Pakistan about the operation to take out Osama bin Laden. To inform any Pakistani leadership would be to take away the security of the operation; this would perhaps even have allowed bin Laden to slip quietly away from Abbottabad, even as American forces closed in on him. The simple fact is, the US simply does not know enough about Pakistan’s desires and goals as they relate to al Qaeda and the Taliban. It’s apparent that at least some factions of Pakistani leadership seek to keep certain terrorist cells and organizations in existence, as this could presumably offer them some benefit. It’s unclear whether keeping bin Laden alive was intentional on Pakistan’s part, or whether they were simply worryingly ignorant of his presence.
Neither reason is likely to do much to help ease tensions between the US and Pakistan. With many questions yet to answer about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan is finding itself under pressure to explain things. Whether Osama’s conspicuous living in Abbottabad was allowed by Pakistan or simply overlooked, this revelation adds another strain of unease between these nascent allies.