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Bin Laden Fallout Strains U.S.-Pakistani Relationship Like Never Before Bin Laden Fallout Strains U.S.-Pakistani Relationship Like Never ... Bin Laden Fallout Strains U.S.-Pakistani Relationship Like Never Befor... Bin Laden Fallout Strains...

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Homepage / NATIONAL SECURITY

Bin Laden Fallout Strains U.S.-Pakistani Relationship Like Never Before

President Obama with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari in the Oval Office on December 14, 2010.(Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
May 6, 2011

Pakistan's military chief says he'll order Pakistani forces to fight any American troops attempting another raid on its soil like the mission earlier this week that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

In his first public reaction to Monday’s assault, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the head of Pakistan’s powerful armed forces, demanded Washington withdraw many of the U.S. military personnel now stationed inside Pakistan and warned that any future raids into the country would prompt a far-reaching reevaluation of Islamabad’s ties with Washington.

It's an escalation of U.S.-Pakistani tensions that suggests the already troubled relationship between the erstwhile allies could be entering a dangerous new phase. Both governments traded public potshots over the American operation that killed bin Laden in his hideout—an enormous compound in an affluent suburb of Islamabad. The proximity of the mansion to Pakistan's equivalent of West Point has raised uncomfortable questions about what Pakistan knew regarding bin Laden and why he managed to remain undetected there for years.

 

But Kayani was having none of it. “Any similar action violating the sovereignty of Pakistan will warrant a review on the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States,” he said in a brief statement released by the Pakistani military press office. 

Later at a press conference with Pakistani journalists, Kayani said he would order Pakistani forces to engage any U.S. troops who entered the country in pursuit of other wanted militants. The comments raised the grim possibility that American and Pakistani troops could one day find themselves engaging in open combat, something which seemed almost unthinkable even a few days ago.

Back in Washington, Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Obama administration to reconsider its military assistance to Pakistan because of the discovery that bin Laden—the most wanted man in the world—spent the last five years living under the noses of thousands of Pakistani security personnel.   

“I am writing to express my deep and ongoing concerns regarding the impact of U.S. security assistance to Pakistan—concerns that have been exacerbated by the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad,” Berman wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Certain elements of the Pakistani defense and intelligence establishments continue to provide direct and indirect support to groups that directly threaten the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s own stability … Pakistan’s continued resistance to cooperate with the United States in counterterrorism bespeaks an overall regression in the relationship.”

Berman’s comments were particularly striking because the lawmaker has long been a strong advocate of increasing American assistance to Pakistan. Berman—along with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.—was one of the primary authors of a 2009 bill that will provide $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan by 2014. 

The cross-Atlantic sniping highlights one of the most worrisome aftereffects of Monday’s dramatic raid by highly-trained Navy SEALs. The commandos killed bin Laden and recovered a wide array of computers, DVDs, hard drives, and other data storage devices, all without suffering a single American casualty.

But the raid, which was launched without any Pakistani knowledge or permission, has added new strains to Washington’s relationship with Islamabad. The United States wants Pakistan to step up its intelligence sharing about other wanted militants, especially bin Laden’s probable successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is thought to be hiding in the country’s lawless border regions, and to take stronger military action against the insurgent safe havens along Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has rebuffed those requests in the past and shows no signs of changing its behavior now.

American patience, however, appears to be rapidly running out. The United States launched the Monday raid against bin Laden’s compound without tipping off anyone inside the Pakistani government because of fears that information about the planned covert assault would leak to bin Laden and allow him to escape the strike.

“There was very little support, if any, across the government for bringing the Pakistanis into the fold,” a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. “They had tipped off targets in the past.”

Privately, several high-ranking American officials said this week they expected Pakistan to take high-profile steps in the near future to demonstrate its commitment to the counter-terror fight and assuage Washington’s fury over the fact that bin Laden's apparently been hiding in plain sight just outside the Pakistani capital.

Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s longtime No. 2, is now the primary American target inside Pakistan, and U.S. officials are studying what one official described as evidence of “communication between al-Qaida leaders,” which was found inside the compound, some of it handwritten. American officials believe that Pakistan knows more about Zawahiri’s whereabouts than it has previously let on, and Islamabad’s decision about whether to share that intelligence with the United States will help determine whether tensions between the two countries continue to escalate or begin to abate.

For the moment, Pakistan appears to have chosen confrontation over cooperation. Kayani’s appeals to Pakistani patriotism and mistrust of the U.S. were clearly meant to obscure the growing questions about whether elements of Pakistan’s government, military, or intelligence services knew bin Laden was in their country and were at least tacitly sheltering him.

Kayani’s assertive approach has paid off in the past, literally. Successive generations of Pakistani leaders have managed to wring tens of billions of dollars of aid out of Washington by alternately promising to help fight terrorism and suggesting that such assistance could be compromised if Washington didn’t fully respect Pakistani sovereignty. The U.S. has provided Islamabad with roughly $20 billion in military and non-military aid since 2001, and Washington—using a similar carrot-and-stick approach—has successfully pressured Islamabad on occasion by threatening to cut that assistance.

But the discovery of bin Laden’s safe haven within Pakistani borders now threatens to change the rules of the game. Washington is embroiled in a difficult war in Afghanistan that was launched in direct response to the deadliest terror attack in its history. The United States spent a decade hunting the man responsible for the strike, only to find him living comfortably in a modern home located close to the capitol of one of its nominal allies. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is certain to be reevaluated, but it’s likely to be a furious Washington, not an aggrieved Islamabad, which pushes for the most far-reaching changes.

Michael Hirsh contributed contributed to this article.

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