After queries about the details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, this is the most asked question. How could the terrorist mastermind and funder live, for up to five years, in a compound less than 50 miles from the Pakistani capital? How can Pakistani officials say they didn’t know he was there? Are they telling the truth? What does all this mean for future relations with the volatile, but strategically, important country?
It will takes weeks, if not months or years, to fully answer these and other questions. But the answers will inform future U.S. efforts to combat terrorism as well as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Osama bin Laden was killed in a three-story compound in Abbottabad, which is about 35 miles from the capital of Islamabad. Abbottabad is home to the Pakistani military academy, akin to America’s West Point.
The large compound, with its fortifications, certainly stood out in a town of more modest dwellings. Yet, Pakistani leaders have said they had no idea who was living there. That has many shaking their heads.
Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, accused Pakistan of “playing a double game.” “It is very difficult for me to understand how this huge compound could be built in a city just an hour north of the capital of the Pakistan, in a city that contained military installations, including the Pakistani military academy, and that it did not arouse tremendous suspicions,” she said at a Monday press conference.
Nearly a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told “60 Minutes,” “I’m not saying they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this [Pakistani] government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida is.”
The president of Pakistan dismissed the questions Sen. Collins and others have raised.
“He was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be, but now he is gone,” Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, wrote of bin Laden in a column in Tuesday’s Washington Post. He wrote emotionally of the high price Pakistan has paid in its fight against terrorism. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, was killed by assassins in 2007.
“Some in the U.S. press have suggested that Pakistan lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism, or worse yet that we were disingenuous and actually protected the terrorists we claimed to be pursuing. Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact,” Mr. Zardari wrote. “Pakistan had as much reason to despise al-Qaida as any nation. The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as as it is America’s.”
But, as we’ve seen before in Pakistan, what civilian leaders say and do can be very different from what the country’s military leaders say and do. Ditto for its intelligence service. Likewise, what these officials know and do is very different from what Pakistan’s many tribal leaders know and do.
What we do know is that members of the U.S. military flawlessly carried out a difficult and daring mission in an unpredictable part of the country. In this instance, a targeted operation was much more effective than nearly a decade of on-the-ground fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.