As the public potshots traded by Washington and Islamabad after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden begin to settle into policy discussions, top U.S. military officials on Wednesday took a measured, sympathetic approach to Pakistan's leadership. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen both told reporters at the Pentagon that Pakistan views the embarrassment of the covert, cross-border raid that killed such a high-profile al-Qaida militant as a punishment for their inaction to find him in the first place, and urged lawmakers to proceed cautiously as they weigh the decision to cut aid.
American lawmakers have been calling into question the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. provides to Pakistan in exchange for its counterterrorism cooperation ever since the covert team found bin Laden in Abbottabad, an affluent garrison town not far from Islamabad. Some are calling for Pakistan’s leadership to pay a price for their incompetence or intransigence in hunting down key militants. "I understand that frustration and I share it," Gates said.
Even so, the Defense secretary urged restraint for lawmakers calling for a reduction in aid, which has totaled more than $20 billion since 2001.
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"I think we have to proceed with some caution. We do have significant interests in Pakistan... We'd need to continue the assistance that we have provided that benefits the Pakistani people," Gates said, stressing that military assistance to Pakistan also involves a "rigorous" review process to determine how much to reimburse the country for its expenses in hunting down militants.
Gates said the Pakistanis have indicated in recent weeks that they are willing to go after militants and have asked the U.S. not to repeat an operation like the bin Laden mission "because they will undertake this themselves." This provides the U.S. with an "opportunity" to work through the crisis before it reaches a breaking point, he added.
The raid that killed bin Laden was launched without Pakistani knowledge or permission -- and seriously embarrassed authorities there who have long claimed to have no knowledge of where bin Laden was hiding.
“If I were in Pakistani shoes, I would say ‘I’ve already paid a price. I’ve been humiliated. I’ve been shown that the Americans can come in here and do this with impunity,'" Gates said. "And I think we have to recognize that they see a cost in that, and a price that has been paid.”
Mullen, who has had a longtime relationship with Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, said he’s “sympathetic” to his Pakistani counterpart’s internal challenges that have surfaced since the raid.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the humbling experience that this is and, in fact, the internal soul-searching that’s going on inside the [Pakistani military] right now and the impact of that,” Mullen said, “I just know for a fact that is going on, and they're not through that.”
“Their image has been tarnished,” he noted. “As we all do … they care a lot about that. They’re a very proud military.”
In a scathing statement a few days after the raid, Kayani demanded that Washington withdraw many of the U.S. military personnel stationed in Pakistan and warned that any new raids into the country would prompt a far-reaching reevaluation of Islamabad’s ties with Washington.
Kayani’s statement also referenced Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which he promised to fully defend against any potential American-led efforts to take control of the weapons. Pakistan's spy chief threatened to resign and called the covert U.S. raid that killed bin Laden a "sting operation."
For his part, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said in a speech to parliament that bin Laden's death was "justice done," but he added that Pakistan's inability to find him was "an intelligence failure … not only ours, but of all the intelligence agencies of the world.”
Pakistani citizens criticized the government and military for not detecting the U.S. stealth helicopters and commandos that crossed the border and landed less than an hour from the capital, and Gilani warned that further raids would not be tolerated. "Unilateralism runs the inherent risk of serious consequences.… Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force," he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., returned this week from a trip to Islamabad to meet with senior Pakistani officials to defuse the escalating crisis. Kerry acknowledged that this is a “make-or-break” moment in Congress in terms of aid to Pakistan. But Kerry said, very generally, that Pakistan had agreed to a “roadmap” with “specific steps” to improve ties.
Mullen said that his conversations with Kayani since the raid reaffirm the “desire to have a relationship — but I think we both recognize its going through a very difficult time right now so the specific steps we need to take are yet to be determined.”
“I think we need to give them the time and space to work on some of the internal challenges that came out of this,” Mullen continued. “Actions need to be taken, and so we’ll see. But I think most of the focus right now is that internal focus to address the challenge, how did this happen, and what should we do about it, and sort of next steps for them internally.”
Gates said that so far there is no evidence that Pakistan’s senior leadership was apprised of bin Laden’s location, even as the U.S. analyzes the cache of materials taken from bin Laden’s compound for more information about other terrorists and to gain insight into whether Pakistan intentionally harbored bin Laden. Even so, Gates said his “supposition” is that “somebody had to know” about bin Laden’s million-dollar compound in Abbottabad.
“We don’t know whether it was retired people, whether it was low level [people who knew],” Gates said. “I think it’s a supposition shared by a number in this government—that somebody had to know. But we have no idea who and we have no proof and no evidence.”
“It’s pure supposition on our part. It’s hard to go to them with an accusation when we have no proof that anybody knew,” he said.
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