ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan criticized the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an “unauthorized unilateral action,” laying bare the strains the operation has put on an already rocky alliance.
U.S. legislators along with the leaders of Britain and France questioned how the Pakistani government could not have known the al-Qaida leader was living in a garrison town less than a two-hour drive from the capital and apparently had lived there for years.
“I find it hard to believe that the presence of a person or individual such as bin Laden in a large compound in a relatively small town … could go completely unnoticed,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also demanded that Pakistani leaders explain how bin Laden had lived undetected in Abbottabad. But in a nod to the complexities of dealing with a nuclear-armed, unstable country that is crucial to success in the war in Afghanistan, Cameron said having “a massive row” with Islamabad over the issue would not be in Britain’s interest.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. is committed to cooperating with Pakistan.
“We don’t know who if anybody in the government was aware that bin Laden or a high-value target was living in the compound. It’s logical to assume he had a supporting network. What constituted that network remains to be seen,” Carney said.
“It’s a big country and a big government, and we have to be very focused and careful about how we do this because it is an important relationship.”
A day after U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaida leader after a 10-year manhunt, new details emerged Tuesday from Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency and bin Laden’s neighbors in Abbottabad.
Residents said they sensed something was odd about the walled three-story house, even though bin Laden and his family rarely ventured outside and most neighbors were not aware that foreigners were living there.
“That house was obviously a suspicious one,” said Jahangir Khan, who was buying a newspaper in Abbottabad. “Either it was a complete failure of our intelligence agencies or they were involved in this affair.”
Neighbors said two men would routinely emerge from the compound to run errands or occasionally attend a neighborhood gathering, such as a funeral. Both men were tall, fair skinned and bearded.
“People were skeptical in this neighborhood about this place and these guys,” said Mashood Khan, a 45-year-old farmer. “They used to gossip, say they were smugglers or drug dealers. People would complain that even with such a big house they didn’t invite the poor or distribute charity.”
U.S. officials have suggested Pakistani officials may have known where bin Laden was living and members of Congress have seized on those suspicions to call for the U.S. to consider cutting billions of aid to Pakistan if it turns out to be true.
Western officials have long regarded Pakistani security forces with suspicion, especially when it comes to links with militants fighting in Afghanistan. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly said she suspected that some members of Pakistan’s government knew where bin Laden was hiding.
However, within Pakistan criticism has been focused on the U.S. breaching the country’s sovereignty. The Obama administration has said it did not inform the Pakistanis in advance of the operation against bin Laden, for fear they would tip off the targets.
A strongly worded Pakistani government statement warned the U.S. not to launch similar operations in the future. It rejected suggestions that officials knew where bin Laden was.
Still, there were other revelations that pointed to prior knowledge that the compound was linked to al-Qaida.
Pakistani intelligence agencies hunting for a top al-Qaida operative raided the house in 2003, according to a senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with the spy agency’s policy.
The house was just being built at the time of the raid by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, al-Qaida’s No. 3, was not there, said the officer.
U.S. officials have said al-Libi once lived in the house and that information from him played a role in tracking down the al-Qaida chief. Al-Libi was arrested by Pakistani police after a shootout in 2005 and later was handed over to U.S. authorities.
The Pakistani officer said he didn’t know why bin Laden would choose a house that already had been compromised.
He also insisted the ISI would have captured bin Laden if it had known he was there and pushed back at international criticism of the agency.
“Look at our track record given the issues we have faced, the lack of funds. We have killed or captured hundreds [of extremists],” said the officer. “All of a sudden one failure makes us incompetent and 10 years of effort is overlooked.”
Al-Qaida has been responsible for scores of bloody attacks inside Pakistan, so on the face of it would seem strange for Islamabad to be sheltering bin Laden. Critics of Pakistan say that by keeping him on the run, Islamabad was ensuring that U.S. aid and weapons to the country kept flowing.
The Pakistani government said that since 2009 the ISI has shared information about the compound with the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies, and that intelligence indicating foreigners were in the Abbottabad area continued until mid-April.
In an essay published Tuesday by The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari denied suggestions his country’s security forces may have sheltered bin Laden, and said their cooperation with the United States helped pinpoint him.
The raid followed months of deteriorating relations between the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence service. Those strains came to a head in late January after a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis in what Washington said was self-defense.
In a statement, the Pakistani government said “this event of unauthorized unilateral action cannot be taken as a rule.”
“The government of Pakistan further affirms that such an event shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the U.S.,” it said, calling such actions a “threat to international peace and security.”
The statement may be partly motivated by domestic concerns. The government and army has come under criticism after the raid by those who have accused the government of allowing Washington to violate the country’s sovereignty. Islamabad also has been angered at the suspicions it had been sheltering bin Laden.
Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt, Munir Ahmed and Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.