Pakistan has already paid dearly for its failure to know or acknowledge that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was hiding for more than five years in a compound a short distance from a Pakistani military facility, Pentagon leaders said on Wednesday.
Pushing back against angry public and congressional accusations that Pakistani officials were complicit in bin Laden’s sanctuary there, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he had seen proof that leaders there were unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“I have seen no evidence at all that the senior leadership knew. In fact, I’ve seen some evidence to the contrary,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. “We have no evidence yet with respect to anybody else. My supposition is, somebody knew.”
He would not say who knew, but suggested it could have been retired or low-level Pakistani officials.
US President Barack Obama’s administration is reassessing its fragile and sometimes hostile relationship with Pakistan after the bin Laden killing, which may change the stakes for both sides. For the US, it may provide greater leverage in its argument to prod Pakistan to go after the militants that target the US, instead of only those that target Pakistan.
For Pakistan, outrage and shame over what is seen as a breach of national sovereignty will color leaders’ willingness to cooperate with the US.
Gates and US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen issued a broad defense of Islamabad’s leaders on Wednesday. They urged patience as the “humiliated” country worked through the problems emanating from the US clandestine raid deep into Pakistan that killed bin Laden on May 2.
“If I were in Pakistani shoes, I would say I’ve already paid a price. I’ve been humiliated. I’ve been shown that the Americans can come in here and do this with impunity,” Gates said. “I think we have to recognize that they see a cost in that and a price that has been paid.”
That argument, however, may hold no sway in Congress, which has seen more than US$10 billion in aid go to Pakistan over the past 10 years.
If a US aid package to Pakistan should come up for a vote in at least one senate appropriations subcommittee, “it would not pass at all. I don’t know how I would vote on the issue,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid.
US Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said as lawmakers are under pressure to cut all US spending, he suggested establishing a “set of benchmarks” for Pakistan to meet, such as going after the Haqqani network, border security and focusing on North Waziristan.
While he cautioned against a rush to cut aid to Pakistan, he said that the US set similar types of benchmarks as it prepared to withdraw troops from Iraq.