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Pakistan's Ever-Shifting Stance on Bin Laden Raid

The comments from Pakistani agencies and officials have ranged from congratulations on a "great victory" to denunciation of a "cold-blooded" killing by the United States.

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death, it's been difficult to figure out exactly where Pakistan stands on the the issue—and exactly how or even whether it plans on investigating its apparent intelligence failures. 

The initial statements were polite. President Obama credited the U.S. counterterrorism partnership with Pakistan, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari reiterated Pakistan’s unified stand against terrorism. But in the days since, the comments from Pakistani agencies and officials have ranged from congratulations on a "great victory" to denunciation of a "cold-blooded" killing by the United States.

The United States had concerns about Pakistan and still has many questions

Some U.S. officials have spoken more candidly than others about concerns that the United States had about Pakistani duplicity. CIA Director Leon Panetta told Time that the United States had chosen not to inform its ally about the raid beforehand because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets.”

And White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan also told reporters that it was “inconceivable” that bin Laden didn’t have support in the country, though he wouldn’t speculate about which—if any—Pakistani officials were involved or had prior knowledge about bin Laden’s whereabouts. “Certainly his location there outside of the capital raises questions,” Brennan said.

“It’s a complicated relationship. There’s no question. And we do have our differences,” White House spokesman Jay Carney has acknowledged. Nonetheless, he said that Pakistan has been an “extremely helpful” and important partner for the United States and noted that “the Pakistani government has launched an investigation of its own” into bin Laden’s support network. “We think that’s a good thing,” he said.

A piece in the Washington Post today, however, shows Pakistan’s own foreign minister downplaying this supposed investigation:

[Foreign Secretary Salman] Bashir indicated that there would be little introspection inside Pakistan about how and why bin Laden was able to reside here, under the nose of the military. Some Pakistani officials in recent days have said there would be an inquiry into intelligence failures, but Bashir played down that, saying questions about bin Laden were “for historians.”

“I would call it a ‘view,’ ” rather than an inquiry, Bashir said. “I think we are in a constant process of viewing at every level. ... This is a routine. So I think we should not try to give it a slant in terms of an inquiry. There’s no such thing as an inquiry.”

Pakistani President Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, has called allegations that Pakistan protected terrorists “baseless speculation.” Top Pakistani officials had long insisted that bin Laden couldn't be hiding within their borders, with some suggesting that he may have already died.

Pakistan denies prior knowledge of raid but talks up contributions

Aside from the first remarks issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry emphasizing Pakistani resolve to fight terrorism and President Zardari’s op-ed reiterating the same, subsequent statements from Pakistani agencies and officials have indicated some disunity between the two countries and disagreement among Pakistani officials.

A second statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. operation as an “unauthorized unilateral action” and warned the United States and other countries against taking it as precedent, warning that “such actions undermine cooperation.” From the statement:

The Government of Pakistan expresses its deep concerns and reservations on the manner in which the Government of the United States carried out this operation without prior information or authorization from the Government of Pakistan.

Such criticism from Pakistan has been the government’s standard response to previous instances of U.S. raids within its borders, as we noted.

The government has consistently denied having any prior knowledge of bin Laden’s location but has simultaneously touted its role in providing intelligence that led to bin Laden, claiming that its intelligence agency, ISI, had been sharing information about the compound with the CIA since 2009. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has also said that Abbottabad and the surrounding area have been “under the sharp focus” of its intelligence agencies since 2003.

U.S. officials have offered no confirmations of these details, and asked specifically about Pakistan’s claimed contributions, the White House would only say generally that Pakistanis have been helpful in gathering intelligence that led to the operation’s success. 

We’ve done a good bit of reporting on Pakistan’s spy agency and the multiple allegations that at least some within the agency have colluded with terrorists—if not with bin Laden specifically. As we have reported, federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly charged a suspected ISI officer with helping to carry out the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, in which six Americans were killed.

Despite the complications, the continued questions, and the latest criticisms from Pakistan, the United States has tried to maintain the appearance of unity. The relationship, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a “productive one for both our countries and we are going to continue to cooperate between our governments, our militaries, our law-enforcement agencies, but most importantly between the American and Pakistani people.”

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