Frenemies: U.S. ally in hot seat after bin Laden found in Pakistani army town

Laura Rozen

U.S. officials have left little doubt that they did not sufficiently trust their counterparts in Pakistan to keep quiet on the plan to send a team of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives into the country on Sunday to kill Osama bin Laden. And now that the whole world knows U.S. forces found and killed bin Laden in a large, conspicuously fortified compound in an affluent Pakistani military town less than forty miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, American officials are likewise making it clear that they don't fully buy the Pakistani government's see-no-evil line on bin Laden's whereabouts. It's hard for Pakistani military leaders in particular to make a credible case that they were shocked--shocked!--to learn bin Laden was right there under their noses; the Pakistani army, after all, has a college in Abbottabad about 800 yards away from the compound where bin Laden was found and killed.

"It's inconceivable that Bin Laden did not have a support system inside the country," White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan told journalists at the White House press conference Monday.

Bin Laden's "presence outside the capital raises questions we are discussing with Pakistani officials," he said. But Pakistani officials profess themselves to be "as surprised as we were that bin Laden was holding out in that area," he added.

In other words--gimme a break.

Of course, the official line in Pakistan is that the country has been a loyal and energetic ally for the United States in the struggle against Islamist terrorism. In an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari contended that while Pakistani officials did not take part in the raid on the bin Laden compound, the action nonetheless arose out of "a decade of co-operation and partnership between Pakistan and the United States." He also noted that "we in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaeda courier ultimately led to this day."

The U.S. version of events doesn't reflect nearly as well on the Pakistani military. In revisiting the highly classified commando operation for reporters, Brennan pointedly reiterated the degree to which American officials kept their Pakistani counterparts out of the loop about the details of its execution. To carry out the 40 minute raid, Brennan explained, U.S. military planners had to take pains to move in and out of the country without having to shoot at Pakistani military forces:

"We were watching to make sure we could get out of Pakistani air space and to minimize the prospect of engagement with Pakistani forces," Brennan described. "No Pakistani forces were engaged. There were no forces killed aside from those on the compound."

Welcome, in other words, to the twilight zone alliance between the United States and Pakistan: alleged allies who sometimes seem to be double-crossing enemies--or what American high school students would call frenemies.

But Brennan's further comments also explain why the U.S.-Pakistani alliance, for all its "ambiguity," mutual secrets, and occasionally covert but sometimes outright armed hostility, is one that neither country can live without.

"I will point out, that while we have had differences of view on counterterrorism cooperation on what we think they should and should not be doing, Pakistan has been responsible for capturing and killing more terrorists than any other country and by a wide margin," Brennan said. "And many Pakistanis have given their lives ... Although there are some differences of views, we believe our partnership is critically important to breaking the back of al Qaeda."

So why do elements of the Pakistani security services persist in supporting the jihadi terrorists trying to kill U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and Afghans? And why can't the United States just declare Pakistan a hostile enemy, if that's how significant reaches of Pakistani officialdom are behaving?

There is no simple answer--but the basic truth here is that the United States would be in far worse shape without even the highly imperfect Pakistani government cooperation American officials are now getting. For all the shortcomings of the current U.S.-Pakistani alliance, it would be far worse for the United States to be confronting an openly hostile South Asian terrorist-backing state that has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world and a bitter ongoing fixation on the ambitions of neighboring rival India.

Still, the U.S. discovery of bin Laden in a million dollar, highly fortified compound in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad, population 90,000, on property only a few hundred feet from major Pakistani military installations, is certainly bringing out into the open what has more often been discussed behind closed doors between U.S. and Pakistani spy chiefs and generals.

"There's no question that once dust settles a little bit that Pakistan is going to be brought under a very harsh light," said former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has worked closely with Pakistani civilian and military leaders. "It's not credible that this guy could live as close to the Pakistani equivalent of Sandhurst"--the elite British military training school--"and someone in Pakistani intelligence did not see outside his villa. That raises questions of its own."

While "it puts a harsher spotlight on Pakistan, it does not however relieve the U.S. of the need to try to work with Pakistan in particular for the betterment of Afghanistan," Armitage added.

"In the short run, this has the potential to make U.S.-Pakistan relations even worse," said Daniel Markey, a South Asian expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is an embarrassment for Pakistan's military and intelligence, given the location, and it follows on the heels of these other 'violations of Pakistani territorial sovereignty'--drones, [CIA contractor] Raymond Davis. From our perspective, it is just more evidence that the Pakistanis are either too incompetent or too complicit to be good partners."

Markey mused there could be a potential silver lining in Osama's killing--but only "if it helps to convince Pakistan's leaders that the United States has the will, capacity, and commitment to go after its enemies and that Pakistan ought not to continue to be an active (or even passive) supporter for these groups." (You can watch Markey discussing the implications of bin Laden's longtime presence in Pakistan on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the CFR video, below.)

Gretchen Peters, the former ABC News bureau chief in Pakistan and author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, said that the current Pakistan dilemma stems from the 1980s. Back then, she explains, Pakistani security and intelligence services forged training and strategic ties with jihadi groups sent over to fight proxy wars against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan (with covert U.S. support), as well as in India in Kashmir. Those formative alliances only strengthened over time--and now, Peters notes, they're very hard for Pakistan to break.

Abbottabad, the town where bin Laden was found, "is one of these places in Pakistan where militancy and the [Pakistani] military are in close proximity," Peters said. Indeed, she notes, it's close to other Pakistani towns that formerly housed mujahadeen and other jihadi group training camps since the '80s.

Peters added she always expected that bin Laden would be "found in a well-guarded compound in a [Pakistani] city, not in a cave." Why? "Because  it is easier to hide in places like that," she said.

The compound where bin Laden was discovered is in a relatively new, private military development in Abbottabad, that was built in 2003-2004.

While U.S. officials have not publicly identified the al Qaeda courier they tracked in order to find bin Laden, the Weekly Standard's Thomas Joscelyn reported that a recently leaked U.S. military cable from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay names an al Qaeda courier close to bin Laden--Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan--who seems to fits the description provided by U.S. officials. The Associated Press reported that the courier is a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani, named Shaikh Abu Ahmed, and whose Al Qaeda nom de guerre was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

U.S. security officials said they were "shocked" at the conspicuously over-the-top security features of the sprawling compound in the affluent development when they saw it--including 12-18 foot fortification walls topped by barbed wire, a property size roughly eight times larger than others in the area, trash from the compound burnt inside rather than put on the street for collection. Particularly striking for a property they valued at a million dollars, they noted, the facility had no phone lines or Internet connections.

But Peters said that while the specifications are perhaps more extreme, "there are lots of [thick-walled, fortified] houses like that in Pakistan. It's much easier to hide in a [newer development] community like that where the neighbors don't actually know each other than in a small village where the entire village knows each other."

Several major al Qaeda figures have been arrested by Pakistani authorities since 9/11--including Ramzi bin al-Shibh in a Karachi apartment building, Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in Rawalpindi or Quetta (depending on who you ask).

It's that sort of cooperation that Brennan praised in his remarks Monday, while making clear the United States is not going to endlessly accept Pakistani excuses for turning a blind eye to forces within its own security structure providing support to the terrorists killing Americans. After all, Brennan notes, such forces are also killing Pakistani citizens.

"The president feels very strongly that the people of Pakistan need to realize their potential for lives of prosperity and security," Brennan said. "And because of the militant organizations in that country, too many Pakistanis have died."

(AP Photo)