ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan faced enormous embarrassment on Monday after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces, raising questions over whether its military and intelligence were too incompetent to catch him themselves or knew all along where he was hiding.
The killing of the world’s most-wanted man in a house just a few kilometers from Pakistan’s version of the West Point military academy will only fuel suspicions that the country has been playing a double game over Islamist militants and al Qaeda.
Analysts say it would be a stretch to believe Pakistan’s spy agency did not know bin Laden was living in a town just a couple of hours up the road from Islamabad: if it did know, the country was essentially caught red-handed shielding him from capture.
“There will be a lot of tension between Washington and Islamabad because bin Laden seems to have been living here close to Islamabad,” said Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani security analyst. “This is a serious blow to the credibility of Pakistan.”
SNARED BEHIND PAKISTAN‘S BACK
Washington has in the past accused Pakistan of maintaining ties to militants targeting U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Relations soured further in recent months over U.S. drone attacks and CIA activities in the country that have fueled anti-American sentiment.
For years, however, Pakistan had maintained it did not know bin Laden’s whereabouts, vowing that if Washington had actionable intelligence, its military and security agencies would act on it.
In October 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced dismay that bin Laden and other prominent militants had not yet been caught and suggested Pakistani complicity, telling newspaper editors in Lahore she found it “hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.”
Neither Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), nor its military spokesmen returned repeated calls for comment on Monday. Adding to the silence, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have said nothing publicly about the operation.
Bin Laden was killed in a dramatic night-time raid by U.S. helicopters on his hideout in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan’s main military academy.
President Barack Obama, speaking in a hastily announced late-night news conference, said cooperation from Pakistan had helped lead U.S. forces to bin Laden. But American and Pakistani sources familiar with details of the operation said U.S. forces had snared bin Laden virtually behind Pakistan’s back.
That the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States was not hiding in mountains along the border but in relative comfort in a town hosting the main military school and home to scores of officers will bolster those who have long argued that Pakistan has been playing a duplicitous hand.
“The evidence suggests it was done totally by the Americans, and the Pakistan military, they have been informed at the 11th hour,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst.
“There is distrust between the two intelligence agencies and ... this is very similar to what the Americans did when they fired missiles on Osama’s training camps in August 1998.”
At that time, the United States gave Islamabad just 90 minutes’ notice that it would retaliate for two embassy bombings in Africa because it was worried Pakistan would tip off the Afghan Taliban, who in turn could have warned bin Laden.
“This operation was conducted by the U.S. forces in accordance with the U.S. policy of hunting down Osama wherever he was supposed to be,” said Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan High Commissioner to Britain, speaking to Sky News. “They successfully eliminated him and subsequently they informed the president of Pakistan this morning of the event.”
Just how much the Pakistani military knew of the raid on bin Laden’s mansion hideout is not clear.
For one thing, analysts say, it would have been difficult for the U.S. Special Forces to act without some logistical military assistance on the ground.
It is also possible that Pakistan allowed the operation to go ahead as part of a deal with Washington on its stake in the endgame in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are due to start withdrawing in July after nearly 10 years of war.
But the government and security agencies had one strong reason for staying silent and letting Washington take the credit for the raid: fear of a public backlash for working so closely with the United States to nab a man who has in the past been popular in Pakistan.
Hours after the assault, about 200 Islamists held a rally in the city of Quetta in the southwestern province of Baluchistan to condemn the killing of bin Laden. The protesters, from a small Islamist party, chanted “down with America,” and “Long live Osama bin Laden.”
“He was a great holy warrior,” said Mufti Kifayatullah, a lawmaker from Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, a hardline Islamic group, said while speaking in the provincial assembly in Peshawar. “Osama was the name of an ideology and an ideology does not die with the death of a person. Today was the blackest day in the history of Pakistan.”
Popular news anchors with alleged ties to the spy agencies referred on air to bin Laden as a “shaheed,” or martyr.
And Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-populist-politician, said Washington should immediately end the war in Afghanistan because Pakistan would pay the price for bin Laden’s death.
“There will be a backlash from supporters of Osama bin Laden, who will think Pakistan has a role in it, and secondly there will be a pressure from America because of the very fact that he (Laden) was found in Pakistan,” he told Geo TV.
(Additional reporting by Myra MacDonald in London, Augustine Anthony, Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider in Islamabad, Gul Yousufzai in Quetta and Faris Ali in Peshawar; Editing by John Chalmers)
This story was corrected in paragraph two to clarify the distance of house from academy