Pakistan's possible role as Bin Laden's protector

Opinion Zone,Ben Domenech

The primary question for the United States in the wake of President Obama's unilateral operation to kill Osama bin Laden has to be: what will we do about Pakistan?

In contrast with the expectations of many in the media, it turns out bin Laden was not hiding in a cave, but in a getaway for retired military officers. He apparently lived in this location for at least five years, in a purpose-built compound which stood out like a sore thumb, known among residents as the "Waziristan Mansion." It is simply impossible to assume that, in town populated by so many ex-military individuals, that questions were not asked.

Pakistan has always been a weak partner, if a partner at all, in the war against Islamist terror. As Simon Tisdall points out, conflicts over cross-border drone attacks and other incidents have contributed to a strained relationship. But the fact that President Obama chose to act unilaterally, ordering an on-the-ground kill mission to obtain proof of bin Laden's death, without involving Pakistan's heirarchy may be the final straw for diplomatic engagement, and serves as a sign that rather than a merely incompetent entity, the White House may have come to the conclusion that Pakistan is not merely useless, but is actively undermining our efforts.

Consider the reactions in the public square from former Pakistan president Pervaiz Musharraf, who slammed the raid, telling CNN-IBN that "America coming to our territory and taking action is a violation of our sovereignty. Handling and execution of the operation [by US forces] is not correct. The Pakistani government should have been kept in the loop."

These latest remarks are just the next step of Musharraf's attempts at a political comeback since leaving power. Under his watch, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) increased its population of Islamists and sympathizers. Today, Pakistan's government is functionally very limited in abillity; nearly every Pakistan province has within it an active separatist movement, and the real question is whether it exists as a nation-state at all, as opposed to a conglomeration of the ISI and a core group of Pakistani-nationalist elites.

Of course, it's exactly Obama's choice not to tell Pakistan anything that allowed this successful mission to happen at all, protecting the information and preventing a warning from being passed through the ISI.

In President Obama's remarks on the subject, he thanked Pakistan explicitly - but did not actually share anything they did to help the process along. Alone among prominent observers, Tom Ricks has suggested that Pakistan tipped off the United States about bin Laden's whereabouts, but there seems to be absolutely no reported evidence of this (of course, this has not stopped Ricks from writing things before). The facts on the ground seem to indicate the strain this has put on Pakistani officials, as Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman attempts to manage the relationship:

However, the White House evidently did not trust the Pakistanis enough to include them in the operation -- [White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan] confirmed that the United States did not contact Pakistani government officials until after U.S. forces had exited Pakistani airspace.

"Clearly the Pakistanis are surprised as anybody here, so they are scrambling to figure out how they are going to respond diplomatically to us," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Grossman is probably scrambling too. But at least his bosses all knew about the operation, so it might not take him as long to catch up."

It's clear no one trusts anyone in this relationship. The fact that Obama would risk an embarassing international incident - Pakistani forces firing on American forces over their airspace - to do it this way shows that there were no other realistic options on the table. But what matters now is whether Steve Coll's description at The New Yorker turns out to be an accurate one:

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests... that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose?

The question on our minds should be: who in Pakistan's government knew Osama bin Laden was there, and how long did they know it? And when we find the answer, that ought to dictate the United States' response. Pakistan's role as a safe harbor for terrorists is long established, and may now have been confirmed in the worst possible way. This cannot be allowed to continue. With bin Laden dead, how the problem of Pakistan is solved now becomes the largest national security issue facing Obama's administration.

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