The U.S. decision to strike alone in killing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his Pakistani hideout underscores American concerns over the decades-old links between the Pakistani military and Islamic militants.
U.S. officials said they didn’t inform their Pakistani counterparts of the attack on the compound, just a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Located 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital, Islamabad, the city is surrounded by army installations and weapons factories.
“It is inconceivable that bin Laden was hiding in a place that is the alma mater of Pakistan’s army without some people in our security establishment -- either military, intelligence or police -- being aware that he was there,” Imtiaz Gul, director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies, said in a phone interview from his office yesterday. “It has caused some shock for Pakistanis to learn that he was in such a central place.”
The compound has the appearance of a “fortress,” John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, told reporters in Washington. He said it “raises questions” that a compound of that size didn’t raise suspicion in the area.
Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have escalated with American officials recently saying they were worried that Pakistan’s intelligence agency maintains ties to guerrillas fighting American-led forces in Afghanistan. Also straining ties were Pakistan’s opposition to U.S. drone attacks on Taliban targets that have killed civilians and American insistence that the strikes continue.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on counter-terrorism “contributed greatly” in efforts to find bin Laden. “Going forward, we are absolutely committed to continuing with that cooperation,” Clinton said in Washington.
Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement that bin Laden’s death was a “major setback” to terrorist groups. It didn’t comment on the assertion by U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in a briefing in Washington, that the government hadn’t been informed of the strike.
Several of Pakistan’s guerrilla groups have been sponsored or backed by the country’s military since the 1980s as proxy forces to maintain influence and attack enemies in Indian-ruled Kashmir, say U.S. officials and scholars of the region such as Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid.
The army has resisted U.S. pressure to attack the Taliban faction led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of its oldest allies, in the border district of North Waziristan. The area is the main base for Haqqani’s guerrillas who have struck U.S. forces operating in at least six Afghan provinces, including the capital, Kabul.
The Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, “has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network,” Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an April 20 visit to Pakistan. “I’m extremely concerned in particular about that aspect.”
While al-Qaeda may have won or purchased the cooperation of some low-level Pakistani security officials to hide bin Laden in the army’s shadow, “I am quite certain that this would not have involved anyone in the top military leadership,” said Talat Masood, a retired army lieutenant general and analyst. “It would be, and be seen among Pakistanis as, a criminal act after the thousands of Pakistanis, including our security forces, who have been killed by al-Qaeda.”
Bin Laden’s presence in a major Pakistani military center reflects a move into the country by al-Qaeda fighters after U.S. attacks helped force them out of their 1990s base in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s move to the cities and mountainous frontier regions of Pakistan escalated already rising violence by Islamic militant groups in the country.
Many of Pakistan’s militant groups -- including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which translates as Soldiers of Muhammad -- maintained camps in the mountains that surround Abbottabad.
Pakistan’s army, which has ruled the country for 32 of its 63 years and controls security policy, lost control of at least some of its former jihadist allies and increasingly since 2007 has had to fight them in its mountainous northwest.
Pakistan, which received an $11.3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in November 2008, is under pressure to reduce its deficit even as it copes with more than $10 billion in damage from record flooding in August and the war against the Taliban. The benchmark stock index closed down 0.2 percent yesterday.
The search for Bin Laden began three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when he slipped away from a U.S. air assault on the Tora Bora mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border. For years, the trail went cold, according to Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama who wrote a 2008 book, “The Search for Al-Qaeda.”
U.S. intelligence last August picked up bin Laden’s trail in Pakistan, Obama said yesterday. As it tracked him to Abbottabad, the U.S. sent teams of CIA personnel into the country. On Jan. 27, CIA contract employee Raymond Davis sparked a confrontation between the two governments and their intelligence agencies, after he shot dead two armed Pakistani men he said had threatened him in the city of Lahore.
Bin Laden’s final battle began shortly after midnight local time yesterday. Abbottabad store owner Fayyaz Khan, 29, heard a large explosion and volleys of gunfire in the city’s Bilal Town area. U.S. Navy Seal commandos attacked from at least two helicopters, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters after Obama announced the killing of the U.S.’s most wanted man.
Bin Laden was living in a three-story villa that cost about $1 million and was guarded by high walls, the officials said. It was built about five years ago for the purpose of harboring the al-Qaeda leader, they said.
The property, built on about 1.5 acres of land, “had huge boundary walls and looked like a fort,” another local man, Altaf Khan, said in an interview in Abbottabad. “There were TV security cameras all around it and in the neighborhood we knew that the women living inside spoke Arabic.”
Pakistan’s military said last month its commander, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, “strongly rejected negative propaganda” that Pakistan isn’t doing enough to defeat insurgents.
The army’s offensives against the Pakistani Taliban movement and allied Islamist guerrillas have triggered retaliatory bombings and gun battles in cities nationwide that the government says have killed thousands of Pakistani citizens and security personnel.
Pakistani leaders have also criticized the six-year-old campaign of using U.S. drones to target militants. Kayani said during Mullen’s visit that the deaths of civilians in the strikes drained support for the army’s anti-insurgency efforts.
The U.S.-Pakistani strategic relationship can be a “complicated matter,” Brennan told reporters at his briefing about the raid on bin Laden. Pakistanis are “as much or more on the front lines” in the fight against terrorism, he said.
Obama’s 2012 budget proposes $1.2 billion in assistance for Pakistan, largely to support counterinsurgency training for military posted along the border with Afghanistan.
The killing of bin Laden as he sheltered in a stronghold of Pakistan’s army may subject the country to more pressure, said Hamid Gul, a retired lieutenant general and former ISI director.
“This will encourage the American CIA to conduct more independent operations without Pakistan’s knowledge,” he said in a phone interview. “On the other hand, Arab al-Qaeda remnants will try to take revenge and may hit Pakistani targets.”
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