Questions of Pakistani Cooperation In bin Ladin Strike
U.S. President Barack Obama announced late May 1 that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead and that the body of the jihadist leader is in U.S. custody. Obama said bin Laden was killed in a firefight with U.S. special operations forces in Abbottabad, about 56 kilometers (35 miles) north of Islamabad. Prior to Obama’s announcement, Pakistani intelligence officials were leaking to U.S. media that their assets were involved in the killing of bin Laden. Obama said, “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.” Obama said he had called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and that his team had also spoken to their counterparts. He said Islamabad agreed it is “a good and historic day for both of our nations and going forward its essential for Pakistan to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
The detailed version of what led to the hit and the extent of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in the strike is not yet publicly known, but reports so far claim that bin laden and his son were hiding in a massive compound with heavy security and no communications access when they were attacked. Two key questions thus emerge. How long was the Pakistani government and military-security apparatus aware of bin Laden’s refuge deep in Pakistani territory? Did the United States withhold information from Pakistan until the hit was executed, fearing the operation would be compromised?
Major strains in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship have rested on the fact that the United States is extraordinarily dependent on Pakistan for intelligence on al Qaeda and Taliban targets and that Pakistan in turn relies on that dependency to manage its relationship with the United States. Following the Raymond Davis affair, U.S.-Pakistani relations have been at a particularly low point as the United States has faced increasing urgency in trying to shape an exit strategy from the war in Afghanistan and has encountered significant hurdles in eliciting Pakistani cooperation against high-value targets.
Now that the United States has a critical political victory with which to move forward with an exit from the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan now faces the strategic dilemma of how to maintain the long-term support of its major external power patron in Washington.