On Bin Laden, Were Pakistani Allies Deceptive or Incompetent?

A Pakistani official chalks not finding bin Laden up to an intelligence failure

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As details emerge about where Osama bin Laden was hiding before he was killed by U.S. forces on Sunday, Pakistani authorities look worse and worse. Yesterday, we learned that bin Laden was living not in some remote cave but in a three-story, million-dollar compound (pictured above) in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, near a military academy and only 35 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. Today, White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan noted that bin Laden probably lived in the compound for the past five to six years. Which, as many commentators have noted, raises the question: How could Pakistan not have known where bin Laden was?

The revelations put Pakistan in a bind. If Pakistani officials say they weren't aware of bin Laden's whereabouts, they look incompetent. If they say they were, the optimistic reading suggests that they were effectively keeping bin Laden under some sort of house arrest, and ultimately gave up bin Laden to the U.S. for a price. This morning, Pakistani officials appear to be making the case for incompetency, though they're also highlighting the ways they've helped the U.S. in its fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers increasingly disillusioned with Pakistan as a good faith partner are calling for a review of the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. provides Pakistan, according to Reuters.

An official with Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, tells the BBC today that the agency's failure to detect bin Laden was embarrassing, adding that the agency raided the Abbottabad compound when it was under construction in 2003 in search of an al-Qaeda operative but that the compound "was not on our radar" since then. "We're good, but we're not God," he explained. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif  Ali Zardari dismissed the idea that Pakistan is sheltering terrorists as cable news fodder and argued that a decade of counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. had helped make the bin Laden raid possible, though he admitted bin Laden "was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be."

In a press conference yestersday, John Brennan said bin Laden had to have had a "support system" in Pakistan and explained that the U.S was investigating whether Pakistani authorities helped the al-Qaeda leader. But the BBC's Owen Bennett Jones says we may never know who supported bin Laden. Pakistan's military and intelligence officials run the show in the country and have connections with jihadis, he notes, but the "Pakistanis will deny they had any knowledge whatsoever ... Clearly there were people helping Bin Laden in this location... were they state employees, were they simply from Taliban-related groups, were they from the intelligence agencies?"

Update: In his first interview since the raid, CIA Director Leon Panetta tells Time that his agency chose not to involve Pakistan in the operation because "it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets." The distrust only adds fuel to the theory that the Pakistanis were sheltering bin Laden.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.