Worldview: Pakistan: Were officials really unaware that bin Laden was living in their midst?

The compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed. Did officials know he lived there?
The compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed. Did officials know he lived there? (AQEEL AHMED / Associated Press)
Posted: May 08, 2011

There is something surreal about Pakistani officials' reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Their focus has been wholly on the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty by the U.S. raid, rather than the fact that bin Laden was living well in their country. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, warned he would not tolerate any repeat of such covert action; the country's foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, said any similar attack could lead to "terrible consequences."

"No self-respecting nation would compromise or allow others to compromise its sovereignty," Bashir insisted. But how could any self-respecting nation allow the world's top terrorist - a foreigner - to operate out of its heartland? How could any self-respecting state permit the leader of al-Qaeda - a group composed of Arabs, Uzbeks, and Chechens - to base in their country?

Unless Pakistani officials address these questions head-on, they are heading for terrible consequences. They are risking not just their relationship with the United States but their country's future existence as well.

No one believes the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari knew bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. And most experts doubt that Gen. Kayani, a square shooter, was aware of bin Laden's location.

But few security experts familiar with Pakistan doubt that some agents in Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence Agency (ISI) knew of bin Laden's hideout. How could they not? He was living practically next door to Pakistan's equivalent of West Point, in a city filled with serving and retired military personnel - a city where other top al-Qaeda operatives had been captured.

If the fix wasn't in, wouldn't the ISI have been watching for unusual activities, especially since the mansion where bin Laden lived had already attracted attention? Wouldn't ISI agents have checked out who lived there?

"Did they know he was here? Surely, they knew he was here," writes the astute Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida, in Dawn newspaper. "Maybe they're so daft they didn't really take this whole business of al-Qaeda seriously. Maybe they just didn't think it was their problem.

"If we didn't know, we are a failed state," Almeida adds. "If we did know, we are a rogue state. But does anybody really believe they didn't know?"

Upon the answer to this question will depend the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations. This administration, particularly Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has tried hard to build bonds of trust with Pakistani counterparts, including Kayani and ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

But unless the ISI comes clean on bin Laden, it will be hard to deflect congressional pressure to cut military and civilian aid to Islamabad. It may become impossible for the two countries to cooperate on a political endgame for the Afghan war that will stabilize that country, as U.S. troops exit. Without such cooperation, Afghanistan faces renewed civil war that will spill across the AfPak border. This would be a self-inflicted tragedy for Pakistan.

The U.S.-Pakistani relationship was already on a downhill slide because of Pakistani ire over an expanded CIA presence in their country. But this presence - which Pakistan wants to slash - would be unnecessary if the ISI was in vigorous pursuit of the leaders of al-Qaeda and other hard-line terrorists on their soil.

Pakistani officials have taken on their own Taliban who threaten them. But they won't confront Afghan Taliban or terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, whom they view as useful tools in their struggle with India. And they failed to find bin Laden.

Assume they didn't know where he was, that they were just incompetent (after all, the CIA has had big lapses). Why didn't they try harder? "Maybe they just didn't think it was their problem," Almeida surmised in his column. Too true.

The Pakistani army and ISI are so obsessed with India that they can't grasp the bigger threat within their own borders. Their distinction between "good" terrorists who fight India and the West and bad ones who attack Pakistanis is reckless; these terrorists have links to each other, and allowing them to flourish in Pakistan eats at the core of the state.

And what if - as most believe - some ISI agents were helping bin Laden. Why would they do it? As Almeida points out, "Pakistan has nothing in common with al-Qaeda. They serve no purpose to us.

"Did we think we could produce him like a rabbit out of the hat when we needed to?" the columnist asks in frustration. "Or, assured in our assumptions about the world around us, did we simply think we could get away with it?"

These are the questions Americans are asking, and Pakistanis should be asking, too. We need the answers quickly.

"The best way to confront the situation is to come clean and tell people what is really happening," I was told by retired Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood, by phone from Islamabad. Instead, Pakistani officials are "posturing," doing damage control at home by focusing on the American incursion.

"This is a very dangerous way of deflecting the public's attitude from the real problem," Masood said. "Are they proposing to face the problem or not? We need to know."


Trudy Rubin begins filing live from Afghanistan next week. E-mail her at trubin@phillynews.com.

 

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