Did Pakistan Know Where Bin Laden Was Hiding?

A map showing northern Pakistan, including Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief of staff, spoke to cadets at the Kakul Military Academy on April 23.

"The terrorists' backbone has been broken and, inshallah [God willing], we will soon prevail," he said in his speech, which was broadcast on state television.

The fact that Osama bin Laden was living roughly a mile away from Kakul in a fortified compound has proved embarrassing both for the Pakistani military and for its civilian government, calling into question whether they knew about his presence in Abbottabad — or how they could have failed to know.

"I think that the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location to the Pakistani army," Carl Levin (D-MI), who chairs the Senate Armed Services committee, told reporters Monday.

Another Possible Casualty?

"A lot of people on our side wonder how this could have happened without the Pakistanis knowing," says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If they weren't complicit, they were incompetent, so why should we bother partnering with them?"

Both the U.S. and Pakistan have depended heavily on each other over the past decade. The U.S. has sent billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to Pakistan, which has been an essential if not always perfect ally both in fighting terrorism and prosecuting the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Relations had weakened during recent months, however. And the question of how bin Laden came to be living in a densely populated city 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, is bound to cause further tensions.

"The best possible outcome of this is that it will cause both sides to do some fundamental thinking about the relationship," says Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

But, he adds, "It's possible that the relationship with Pakistan will be a casualty of this."

Hiding In Plain Sight

Abbottabad is home not only to the military academy but to a large number of retired and active military officers. The compound in which bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces "has been in existence for roughly five years," according to a senior Obama administration official.

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Several Pakistani presidents have said they didn't know where bin Laden was, notes Fontaine, the former McCain aide. That was easy to believe when it was suspected the al-Qaida leader was living in the mountains of Waziristan, he says. It seems like more of a stretch once it turned out he was living relatively close to the capital in a structure far larger than the local norm, behind high walls topped with barbed wire.

"That really deepens suspicions about Pakistani capability or intentions," says Fontaine, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

What Did The Pakistanis Know?

President Obama took pains to praise the Pakistani government for its help in fighting al-Qaida in his speech Sunday night.

"It's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding," Obama said.

Officials from both the American and Pakistani governments, however, stressed that the operation was a unilateral affair carried out solely by U.S. military and intelligence.

Some experts have noted, however, that Pakistan has a history of turning over important suspects, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of al-Qaida's 2001 attacks on the U.S., at key junctures in the relationship.

"The timing was suspect," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science and Indian culture at Indiana University. "You could see that around the time when Congress was considering aid; they would deliver us another head."

Ganguly says bin Laden was Pakistan's "prime asset" in this regard. And Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom who has served and studied in Abbottabad, insists that some Pakistani officials must have known he was there. He suggests that Pakistan must have decided to turn over bin Laden to repair a relationship that had reached a low ebb.

"Pakistan felt this was the appropriate time to play the Osama card, which is to say, 'Let the Americans go after him,' " says Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic studies program at American University. "The trigger was U.S.-Pakistan relations. If ever there was a time, this was it."

Pakistan's Tough Spot

Ahmed's speculations may not be borne out as the full story of the operation becomes clearer. More analysts suggests that the U.S. kept Pakistan in the dark about the operation because of existing levels of distrust between the countries.

But Ahmed's statements do suggest something about the complexities of the bilateral relationship and the difficulty in which the Pakistanis now find themselves.

Many Pakistani commentators are already complaining that the U.S. action represents what they consider another violation against the nation's sovereignty, following the long U.S. campaign of armed drone attacks against targets within the country.

And because the U.S. is unpopular in Pakistan, suggests Farzana Shaikh, a fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, Pakistan has to play down any part it may have played in assisting the American effort.

"Pakistan has to say it's purely a U.S. operation," says Shaikh. "While it would like the international community to acknowledge its role in fighting terrorism, it has to be more restrained in promoting its own role because of fierce anti-American sentiment within Pakistan."

Either way, it's likely that Pakistan will find itself the target for reprisal attacks from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Already, the Pakistani Taliban has threatened to kill top Pakistani officials, including Kayani, in retaliation.

Pakistani has suffered from a great deal of political violence in recent months. But a fresh round of attacks on schools and mosques may be more likely, says Markey, the Council on Foreign Relations scholar.

That could lead to renewed calls from Pakistanis to stop cooperating with the U.S. effort there.

"Normal Pakistanis will die, and many will say, 'This doesn't serve our interest,' " Markey says.

Mutual Need Continues

Shaikh says the killing of bin Laden on Pakistani soil will indeed "cause a great deal of soul searching on the part of Pakistan." But she suggests it will also raise questions in Washington.

U.S. officials may still need Pakistani help, but "the U.S. now believes it needs Pakistan rather less than it did yesterday," Shaikh says. "The question is whether or not the U.S. will continue forking out $1 billion annually to Pakistan."

But many analysts contend that while the U.S. may rethink its partnership with Pakistan, it's not about to break it off.

Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan are like those of an old married couple who bicker in private but smile together when out in public. Their differences are real but are put aside, as best as possible, because the stakes of splitting apart would be so high.

"The bottom line," says Fontaine of CNAS, "is that the war on terror is easier with Pakistani cooperation than without."

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