New suspicions of Pakistan’s role in evasion
NEW YORK — The killing of Osama bin Laden almost in plain sight in a city that hosts numerous Pakistani military forces seems certain to further inflame tensions between the United States and Pakistan, and raise significant questions about whether elements of the Pakistani spy agency knew where the Al Qaeda leader was hiding.
The presence of bin Laden in Pakistan, something Pakistani officials had long dismissed, goes to the heart of the lack of trust Washington has felt over the last 10 years with its contentious ally, the Pakistani military and its powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
With bin Laden’s death, perhaps the central reason for an alliance forged on the ashes of 9/11 has been removed, at a moment when relations between the countries are already at a low point as their strategic interests diverge over the shape of postwar Afghanistan.
For nearly a decade, the United States has paid Pakistan more than $1 billion a year for counterterrorism operations whose chief aim was the killing or capture of bin Laden, who slipped across the border from Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001.
The circumstance of bin Laden’s death may not only jeopardize that aid, but will also no doubt deepen suspicions that Pakistan has played a double game, and perhaps even knowingly harbored him.
Bin Laden was not killed in the remote and relatively lawless tribal regions along the border, where the United States has run a campaign of drone attacks aimed at Al Qaeda militants, where he was long rumored to have taken refuge, and where the reach of the Pakistani government is limited.
Rather, he was killed in Abbottabad, a city of about 500,000, in a large and highly secured compound that, a resident of the city said, sits near the grounds of a military academy.
The academy was visited just last month by the Pakistani military chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, where he proclaimed that Pakistan had “cracked’’ the forces of terrorism, an assessment that was greeted with skepticism in Washington.
In addition, the city hosts three military regiments, and a unit of the Army Medical Corps. According to some reports, the compound and its elaborate walls and security gates may have been built specifically for the Al Qaeda leader in 2005, hardly an obscure undertaking in a part of the city that the resident described as highly secure.
John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said yesterday it is inconceivable that bin Laden didn’t have some support in Pakistan. He said the White House is talking with the Pakistani government, and pledged to pursue all leads to find out what type of support he might have had.
“There are a lot of people within the Pakistan government, and I am not going to speculate about who, or if any of them, had foreknowledge about bin Laden being in Abbottabad, but certainly its location there outside of the capital raises questions,’’ he said.
The United States acted alone in the special operation, another sign of the strained relationship between the countries.
Almost instantly, the death of bin Laden in such a place in Pakistan led to fresh recriminations from its neighbors. “The fundamental challenge is, how does the West treat Pakistan from now on?’’ said Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence director for Afghanistan and a fierce foe of Pakistan.
Still, it was too soon to say whether bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad reflected Pakistani complicity or incompetence.
At the very least, bin Laden’s death in Pakistan will be highly embarrassing to its military and intelligence establishment.
After bin Laden’s death became public in Pakistan, an ISI official insisted, contrary to Obama’s statement, that he was killed in a joint US-Pakistani operation, suggesting Islamabad knew about it in advance.
President Asif Ali Zardari, the ISI chief, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, and Kayani met yesterday, but had not issued any statement more than six hours after Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death.
Since 9/11, the Pakistani government and the military have played a delicate balancing act between sometimes trying to overtly support the United States in its goal to get rid of Al Qaeda, and local popular sentiment that seemed to, at the very least, tolerate the Islamic militants.