Yet given the choice between pleading incompetence or complicity in bin Laden’s years-long stay in the garrison city of Abbottabad, Pakistani authorities have opted for the former. It is an explanation that strains credulity for many international observers, including U.S. policymakers, who have demanded an investigation into whether Pakistan sheltered the al-Qaeda leader.
Pakistanis have been more inclined to believe that their government was unaware of bin Laden’s presence. But the admissions of error by Pakistani authorities have prompted unusual questioning of a central tenet of the national narrative: that the military and intelligence services are untouchable guarantors of Pakistan’s safety.
Some of the discord centers on the United States, which the Pakistani government rebuked for carrying out an “unauthorized” operation when it choppered in Navy SEALs to raid bin Laden’s sanctuary.
But in a development that some analysts hope will buoy Pakistan’s weak civilian government, critics — including hawkish retired generals — are also questioning the ability of the nation’s military to protect nuclear facilities, its large defense budget and even its perception of India as an archenemy.
Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul — a nationalist former chief of the nation’s primary spy agency and a vocal backer of the Afghan Taliban — has decried Pakistan’s intelligence capabilities. Letters to newspapers have called for explanations from the military, both for bin Laden’s presence and the undetected U.S. raid. MAK Lodhi, a columnist for the News, an English-language newspaper that typically champions the army, called bin Laden’s killing “shameful for every Pakistani, particularly our intelligence outfits, which bothered little to capture the most wanted and hated man on earth.”
Many here assume that the Pakistani military took part in the killing and is withholding information about its participation, perhaps to prevent a backlash from Islamist insurgents, who have targeted the Pakistani state in recent years.
“I think the Pakistanis did have some information and idea about the operation. But if it is accepted that they didn’t, it’s very disgusting and shameful on their part,” said Asad Munir, a retired senior official with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan’s top spy agency. “If they didn’t, they need to put their house in order.”
Pakistan, juggling criticism from various corners, has scrambled to soften the damage through at times mixed messages. While insisting that they had no knowledge of the raid, Pakistani officials maintained that their intelligence cooperation since 2001, and particularly over the past two years, helped lead the United States to bin Laden and dozens of other al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.