Obama administration officials here and in Islamabad are demanding that Pakistan quickly provide answers to specific questions about Osama bin Laden and his years-long residence in a bustling Pakistani city surrounded by military installations.
In addition to detailed information about the bin Laden compound — who owned and built the structure and its security system — Pakistani officials are being asked in meetings with U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic interlocutors to provide names of witnesses who can testify about visitors to the compound.
U.S. lawmakers have said it defied logic that bin Laden was able to hide in plain sight without some level of official Pakistani knowledge or complicity. Some have suggested that $3 billion in annual U.S. military and economic assistance be reconsidered, while others joined with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said Tuesday that “this is no time to back away from Pakistan.”
How Pakistan responds will determine the future of the long-brittle relationship between the two countries, as well as the endgame in the Afghanistan war, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about what they called a pivotal moment.
On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said the failure to discover bin Laden’s refuge earlier must be shared by intelligence agencies around the globe--not just his nation’s.
“Certainly we have intelligence-sharing with the rest of the world, including the United States,” Gillani told reporters in Paris. “So if somebody points out that there are . . . lapses from the Pakistan side, that means there are lapses from the whole world.”
In Pakistan, authorities told local media that on Wednesday they arrested, then released, a contractor who had worked on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad.
No details were released, but it appeared that the contractor likely worked on the residence as it was being built. The Associated Press, citing property records, said the compound was purchased by a man named Mohammad Arshad for $48,000, in four stages between 2004 and 2005.
In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, the stakes of the international blame game could not be higher--for both Pakistan and the United States. A final breach of the relationship could put at risk administration hopes of continuing military progress against Afghan Taliban insurgents and bringing reconcilable insurgent leaders, lodged in Pakistani sanctuaries, to the negotiating table this year. It could make the CIA’s drone missile strikes against insurgent targets in Pakistan, conducted with tacit Pakistani cooperation and some intelligence assistance, much more difficult.
But the moment of crisis was also seen by some administration officials as an unprecedented opportunity to solidify the relationship, assuming wholehearted Pakistani cooperation. “At this point, it’s very important that Pakistan demonstrate its commitment to work with America in the war on terror,” one U.S. official said. After weeks of tight focus on the operation itself, the White House will hold high-level national security meetings this week on how to leverage the post-raid situation to gain more, rather than less, cooperation.
Two days after helicopter-borne U.S. Navy SEALs took bin Laden’s life in a surprise raid, Pakistan seems unsure how to position itself. Reeling from domestic criticism over an American operation on its soil and international suspicion that it is harboring terrorists, the Islamabad government expressed “deep concern” Tuesday over what it called an “unauthorized unilateral action,” but also took credit for helping to locate the terrorist leader.
A Foreign Ministry statement said Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), had kept the compound “under sharp focus” since construction got underway in 2003. But one intelligence official said that although it was searched in pursuit of an al-Qaeda operative that year, nothing was found and it was never scrutinized again.
The statement said that Pakistan had begun sharing intelligence with the United States on the area as early as 2009 and that the CIA had used those leads to reach bin Laden. The administration has acknowledged unspecified Pakistani intelligence cooperation that helped narrow the search.
But as administration officials continued to provide details of the raid Tuesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that Pakistan was kept in the dark throughout the planning and the operation itself for fear word of the mission would leak. “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission,” Panetta told Time magazine. “They might alert the targets.”
In a series of morning television interviews, White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan said Pakistani officials were trying to determine “whether there were individuals within the Pakistani government or military intelligence services who were knowledgeable” of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
For now, Washington has accepted what appeared to be “genuine surprise” at bin Laden’s presence expressed by top Pakistani officials, including President Asif Ali Zardari; the country’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani; and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, one U.S. official said.
Each of the three met privately in Islamabad on Monday with Marc Grossman, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but offered little information, officials said. In public Tuesday, Grossman praised Pakistan’s determination, along with that of Afghanistan, “to curb terrorism.” He called bin Laden’s death an “important and a joint success of three states.”
U.S. intelligence has for years been amassing evidence of Pakistan’s complicity with the Afghan Taliban, while remaining uncertain how high it went within military and intelligence structures. Since the bin Laden raid, officials have said that wealthy individuals who shared al-Qaeda’s extreme Islamist and anti-American views and supported his movement, along with sympathetic elements of retired and possibly active-duty military and intelligence officials, likely knew that someone important lived in the compound.
“The key question is just the due diligence,” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), in an interview, said of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. “What was done? How could they not know? Who knew what? . . . Did nobody have some questions about who the hell was living behind those walls?”
“They’ve got to get right at this, and sit down pretty soon there and figure it out, because there are people in Congress and others who won’t care about the details here,” said Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key player in past administration attempts to form a genuine partnership with Pakistan.
Boehner, who visited Pakistan last month, said the White House needs to have an “eyeballs-to-eyeballs” conversation about what the two sides expect of each other,” even as he said that the relationship with Pakistan “is critical to breaking the back of al-Qaeda and the rest of them.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she will meet Wednesday with Panetta and Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, to review the Pakistan factor. But while “we need to find out” what the Pakistanis knew, she said, the administration and Congress must tread carefully.
Boehner cautioned that an effort now to cut aid to Pakistan would be “premature,” and Feinstein questioned whether it was “wise to do so” in light of the need to keep Pakistan in the U.S. tent. In recent months, Pakistan has reached out to China, Saudi Arabia and others. In a visit last month to Kabul, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, Kayani and Pasha suggested that Afghanistan reduce its ties with the United States and look more toward Beijing, Afghan officials said.
U.S. officials, and some within the Pakistani government itself, think the crisis offers an opportunity for Islamabad’s civilian administration to assert more authority against the powerful military establishment.
“It’s a chance for the civilians to exert some supremacy,” a senior official in Zardari’s government said, “to make it very clear that if the ISI and the military look very bad, they really need to eat humble pie.”
The Obama administration, the Pakistani official said, “is saying they really want answers. They are also saying, ‘This is an opportunity — we don’t want to beat up on you. If you can cooperate right now, let’s enhance our partnership, and find opportunities for us to work closely on the endgame in Afghanistan. But stop playing games.’ ”
Brulliard reported from Islamabad and Abbottabad, Pakistan. Staff writers Paul Kane and Ellen Nakashima in Washington and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.