Osama bin Laden was killed in a mansion near a military academy not unlike Pakistan's West Point. Are we better off not cooperating with the country when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda?
It sounded like a Michael Bay movie: a daring raid, deep inside Pakistan, to kill the world's biggest terrorists at a mansion in a Abbottabad, a small town in Pakistan. Yet even as crowds gather outside the White House for a raucous, late-night celebration, many questions linger, particularly for the already-troubled U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
In his speech announcing bin Laden's death, the President offered some interesting details:
Over the years, I've repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we've done. But it's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.
Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.
That is, Obama waited until tonight, hours after the raid was conducted and Osama bin Laden's body collected, to tell the President of Pakistan that it took place. After the news broke, a "senior administration official" told reporters that the administration deliberately waited until after the raid was conducted to tell the Pakistani government about it.
The U.S. and Pakistan are at a low point in their relationship. In January, Raymond Davis, a contractor working for the CIA, shot and killed two men in Lahore, an incident that would both reveal and worsen just how bad the U.S.-Pakistan relationship had gotten. The U.S. claimed Davis had diplomatic immunity and should be returned to U.S. custody; the Pakistanis disagreed and placed him on trial for the murders, ruling along the way that he was not, in fact, entitled to immunity. As the trial dragged on, the streets of Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi were clogged with angry protesters declaring their desire to kill Davis. Only the last-minute payment of diyya, or blood money, allowed him to leave the country.
In the years leading up to Davis' arrest, many Pakistanis expressed anger at the CIA's drone campaign in their country's northwest, which they saw as a violation of their sovereignty. When a CIA contractor - Davis -- was then arrested for killing two Pakistani men on the street, popular anger over the CIA's activities erupted in the streets.
Immediately after Davis' arrest, many observers got the impression that the CIA and Pakistan's intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which typically collaborated on operations against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, were not getting along. As recently as last week, Pakistani news was loaded with speculation about the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies. The ISI is frequently accused of collaborating with al-Qaeda, while the CIA is criticized for operating the drones program outside the tight control of the Pakistani government. Both are probably true.
Over the last year, the CIA has operated inside Pakistan with increasing independence, infuriating the Pakistani government, which has insisted on oversight over all foreign operations on its soil. Now, less than five months after Raymond Davis' arrest, a U.S. special operations team has moved deep into Pakistani territory and killed Osama bin Laden. The location is significant: Abbottabad, the town in the northwestern province of Khyber-Paktunkhwa where the CIA found him, hosts the Pakistani Military Academy. It is the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, where many Army officers are educated and trained. A senior Obama administration official has said that the compound where bin Laden was killed was about eight times larger than the average home in the area, and built as recently as 2005. From the few reports we have so far, there were no Pakistani government forces involved in the nearly 40-minute firefight that eventually killed bin Laden.
It is difficult to imagine how bin Laden could have been living at a mansion in a town known primarily for its large population of military officers without anyone noticing. Recently released secret cables from Guantanamo, which identify Pakistan's ISI intelligence service as an active collaborator with al-Qaeda, make it even less believable that the Pakistani government did not know precisely where Osama bin Laden was hiding. From the very limited information available right now, it appears that the U.S. assumed the Pakistani government would have blown the operation by telling bin Laden about it, so they chose to keep it a secret until it was all over and they had a body to confirm the kill.
What comes next? If there is a coherent story out of Pakistan from the past year, it is that the CIA has disconnected its operations from the ISI, to stunning success: not only have drone strikes killed more terrorists, but now the U.S. has launched a raid to kill the most wanted terrorist in the world -- in town controlled by the Pakistani military. This is surely humiliating for Pakistani President Zardari: he wasn't even given a courtesy call before the raid began.
Within Pakistan, it remains to be seen what effect bin Laden's death will have. While Tehrik-i Taliban -- commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban -- remains in denial, none of the terror groups operating against the Pakistani government relied on al-Qaeda for much beyond moral support. Ayman al-Zawahiri, widely considered al-Qaeda's chief of operations, remains at large. The threat of Pakistan-based terrorism will, unfortunately, largely go unaltered.
Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces might not change the overall picture much, but it is clarifying. Even beyond the enormous political symbolism of the kill, it brings the particulars of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship into disturbingly sharp focus. Though often characterized by mistrust, the way this raid unfolded seems to indicate that the U.S. has never trusted Pakistan less than it does right now. But this just might be a good thing -- the causes of that mistrust have long been present, but we are only now acting on them -- especially if it results in more arrests or killings of senior leaders of al-Qaeda.
There are, however, downsides to the souring U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan's importance to the U.S. goes beyond the fact that terrorist groups inhabit its soil. It has nuclear weapons. It is one of the biggest recipients of Chinese economic aid (often targeted to annoy or provoke India and Iran). By sheer luck of geography, it will play an enormous role in the future of the war in Afghanistan, and the ultimate stability and economic interdependence of Central Asia. None of these things really depend on al-Qaeda. But if the U.S. destroys its relationship with Pakistan because of Pakistan's support for terrorism, we will be sacrificing much of our influence in a part of the world where influence is both increasingly important and hard to come by. In the end, if our relationship continues to sour, we just might not be that much better off after all.