American secrecy lays bare deep distrust of its Pakistani 'allies'

US military commanders believe it is inconceivable that Bin Laden did not have friends in high places. By Omar Waraich
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The Independent Online

The mistrust could scarcely be more pronounced. The decision to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden was not just successful in its aims, but managed to achieve those results without even informing America's Pakistani "allies" until the Navy Seals had left Pakistan's airspace.

Pakistan's alliance with the United States, in its current form, was forged in the white heat of 9/11. Then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf claimed to have turned on his heel, abandoned his powerful institution's jihadist proxies and embraced Washington's "war on terror" with well-rewarded enthusiasm.

In recent months, that relationship has been strained to near-breaking point. At the White House last night, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, almost described Islamabad in terms one would reserve for an adversary.

Not only were the Pakistanis not involved in the operation, as some Islamabad officials have tried to suggest, but jets were belatedly dispatched to rebuff the Americans. Only after the commandos had left Pakistani airspace did Mr Obama inform his Pakistani counterpart, President Asif Ali Zardari.

It is "inconceivable", Mr Brennan said, that Bin Laden was without a support system inside Pakistan. It is a claim that the US has made for several months now. "I'm not saying that they're at the highest levels," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a visit to Pakistan in May 2010, "but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden, and al-Qa'ida, is."

Yesterday, Ms Clinton said that Pakistan had played a role in challenging al-Qa'ida. It is true of earlier years, when Pakistan helped scoop up leading members. But the top leaders have frustratingly proved elusive. And the strange Abbottabad compound, in the heart of Pakistan's army, built within the last six years, justifiably elevates eyebrows.

The decision to keep the Pakistanis out of the loop makes plain that the US either did not trust Islamabad enough, or worse, feared that Bin Laden would be tipped off and moved before the commandos could reach him.

Pakistan, a long-suffering victim of al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism, has little reason to support Bin Laden's ambitions inside Pakistan. The terror group's affiliates have ritually attacked the Pakistani military and its installations.

But could a non-operational Bin Laden, whose head was prized chiefly for symbolic value, possibly been of use to Pakistan as a card to play later. As the Afghanistan endgame nears, the strategic divergences become plainer.

The Bin Laden operation is the third in a series of high-profile disputes just this year. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis, saw a six-week standoff as the two countries' leading intelligence agencies clashed over diplomatic immunity and spying on local assets. For the past six weeks, the two have clashed over the CIA's use of drones.

For Pakistan, a role in the future of Afghanistan is crucial. It fears encirclement by India in the region. It would also like to see its allies among the Taliban-inspired Afghan factions, chiefly the Haqqani network, play a role. So far, Washington has ignored Pakistan's entreaties and is keen to press on with the surge in the hope of at least achieving a stalemate.

Paradoxically, Pakistan's powerful security establishment is also keen to maintain the US as an ally, keep it involved in the region and continue to receive much-needed largesse to maintain what is one of the world's largest armies. To that end, Bin Laden could have been useful. He could have been a card to play at the right time, for the right leverage. Now they have been denied that opportunity.

Criticisms of Pakistan

Hillary Clinton: I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists. (2009)

Robert Gates: There is a very real, and very understandable, trust deficit that has made it more difficult for us to work together.(2010)

David Cameron: We cannot tolerate... the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able to promote the export of terror (2010)

Admiral Mike Mullen: We have strong reservations over the relations of elements of their intelligence with the [terrorist] Haqqani network. (2011)