The discovery of Osama bin Laden by US commandos close to the Pakistani capital dealt a devastating blow to the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, setting off a fevered round of speculation about how bin Laden could have been hiding virtually under their noses in a small city that housed military garrisons.
It was amply clear on Monday that the Pakistani military was experiencing a gamut of shock and embarrassment. Pakistan’s official statement, slow in coming, was clearly calculated to put the best face on a moment that threatens to reset relations with the US, but the US’ preoccupation with Pakistan — a nuclear-armed state with rising levels of militancy — revolves around more than bin Laden, important as he was, and officials on both sides may seek to avoid a sharp turn toward hostility.
Not least, the US would like Pakistani cooperation in the continuing fight against terrorism and in ending the war in Afghanistan at a moment when bin Laden’s capture was bound to alter the debate about whether the US should withdraw from a costly nine-year war.
US officials stopped well short of accusing Pakistan of sheltering bin Laden, but they strongly indicated that they would want answers about the extent of the network in Pakistan that allowed bin Laden to live and hide in apparent comfort for so long.
“It’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time,” John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism official, said at a White House briefing on Monday. “I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan. We are closely talking to the Pakistanis right now, and again, we are leaving open opportunities to continue to pursue whatever leads might be out there.”
At a Pentagon briefing in Washington on Monday, a senior US Department of Defense official said: “We have no indications that the Pakistanis were aware that Osama bin Laden was at the compound in Abbottabad,” the city where he was killed, about an a hour’s drive from the capital.
Similarly, a former senior CIA official who closely followed the hunt for bin Laden said he had heard of no evidence that bin Laden was being protected by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency. He called speculation on the subject premature.
“I would be very surprised if he was under ISI protection,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said that the ISI probably knew the identity of the owner of the large compound where bin Laden was discovered, but not that bin Laden was hiding there. He said many religiously conservative Pakistanis had a favorable view of bin Laden, but others were deeply skeptical.
Some said at worse, rogue ISI officers or former officers might be involved, but others saw a darker conspiracy.
“Someone knew,” Major General James Helmly, who was the top US officer in Pakistan from mid-2006 to mid-2008, said in a telephone interview from Georgia, where he is now retired. “Whether it’s in the top echelons of the ISI is anyone’s guess, but if someone is building a big ostentatious project like that, and if it’s like where I live, people are going to say: ‘I wonder who’s living there?’”
Some US counterterrorism officials said it was almost inconceivable that Pakistan’s security services would be in the dark about the residents of such a compound.