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05.03.11

Bin Laden Death Reveals Pakistan's Betrayal

That Osama bin Laden could hide for years in Pakistan shows that Afghanistan is a sideshow. Richard Miniter says the real war is in Pakistan, which treats al Qaeda terrorists like family.

Why should U.S. taxpayers send Pakistan some $3.4 billion every year when its government couldn’t find bin Laden hiding in a large lair worthy of a James Bond villain?

In the Republican-led House of Representatives, some staffers can’t stop thinking about Osama bin Laden’s concrete castle in a relatively wealthy tourist town. It is the location that stuns them—a mere 800 yards from Pakistan's military officer training school. How could the Pakistanis not know?

Gallery: Inside Osama bin Laden's Hideout

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Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Photo: Farooq Naeem / Getty Images)

The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage

Over at the State Department and the CIA, analysts are more worldly and harder to surprise. They say a certain amount of duplicity is necessary for the regime to survive, given Pakistan’s competing constituencies. Then, they ask calmly, how could they not know? They answer their own question: Of course, they did. They’ve been playing us for years….

All over Washington today, people are rethinking the special relationship with Pakistan.

It is about time.

Analysts say a certain amount of duplicity is necessary for the regime to survive, given Pakistan’s competing constituencies.

The American relationship with Pakistan was born out of necessity and then, borne out of necessity. Pakistan emerged as a key U.S. ally during the Cold War, when Islamabad was decidedly anti-communist and India decidedly “non-aligned.” Pakistan was America’s only ally in the region and the best territory for supplying forces in Afghanistan.

When Soviet tanks roared through the snow-slicked streets of Kabul on Christmas Day 1979, Pakistan’s leader, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, quickly phoned President Jimmy Carter. Adversity drew them together. By 1981, Zia ul-Haq found an attentive ear in President Ronald Reagan. Pakistan became a key staging area for funding and equipping the mujahideen, a motley collection of Afghan factions devoted to driving out the Soviets.

At the peak, the U.S. was spending close to $1 billion per year in financing the Afghan resistance, much of the money flowing through Pakistan’s feared intelligence service. After the Soviets retreated by driving their last T-72 tanks across a bridge over the Oxus River, the U.S. declared victory and went home. Its relationship with Pakistan entered a dormant stage. Military and other aid continued on auto-pilot.

The September 11 attacks made Pakistan more important than ever. For the U.S., fighting a war in Afghanistan meant using Pakistan’s air space and sea ports as well as its extensive intelligence and military connections. Necessity, again, had restored the romance.

Certainly Pakistan’s help has been vital. More than two-thirds of the 600 high-level al Qaeda operatives killed or captured anywhere in the world since 2001 were slain or seized in Pakistan.

But any measure of Pakistan’s helpfulness suggests its complicity. In addition to bin Laden, Ramzi Yousef (the 1993 Word Trade Center bomber), Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the 9/11 mastermind), Ramzi Binalshib (who sought to be 9/11’s 20th hijacker), and Abu Zubaydah (a 9-/11 operative) were all found in comfortable homes in Pakistan’s elite enclaves. Bin Laden’s mansion-hideout in Pakistan was not the exception, but the rule.

Or consider that, in 2001, nine out 10 calls between suspected al Qaeda operatives in Europe and the rest of the world went to Peshawar, a city in Pakistan teeming with Afghan refugees. In 2002, almost half of those same calls shifted to a single city in Pakistan, Karachi. Both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshib were known to be in Karachi at the time. Al Qaeda now considers Pakistan to be home.

Members of the intelligence community say their concerns about Pakistan have been growing for more than a decade.

Doubts began when al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, on Aug. 7, 1998, and the Clinton administration formally requested Pakistan’s help in taking bin Laden into custody. Pakistan’s diplomats politely said they had little real influence, despite Pakistan being the first nation in the world to recognize the Taliban government. “That’s when we first started hearing about bin Laden having medical problems,” said a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer.

Initially, the intelligence community believed that bin Laden had a kidney ailment or related health problem, until, in 2002, bin Laden’s personal doctor was detained in Pakistan. He revealed that bin Laden was a healthy, vigorous man with no chronic health issues. Intelligence analysts learned not to take the word of their Pakistani counterparts at face value.

Links between al Qaeda and top Pakistani officials kept cropping up. When Pakistani police raided the home of al Qaeda suspect Zahid Sheikh Mohammed, they found several photographs of Zahid with top advisers to then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. One photo showed Zahid with the prime minister himself, while another put Zahid with bin Laden. Zahid’s younger brother is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who later planned the Sept. 11 attacks.

While Sharif narrowly defeated Benazir Bhutto in an October 1990 election, his victory was soon tainted by charges that bin Laden had bankrolled his victory. Former Pakistani intelligence official Khalid Khawaja said as much to ABC News.

A month before Sharif faced Bhutto in an October 1993 rematch election, al Qaeda’s bomb maker, Ramzi Yousef, who had bombed the World Trade Center towers only months before, tried to kill Bhutto in her walled home. The bomb exploded prematurely and Yousef was hospitalized. The motive was clear enough: Stop a reform-minded woman leader while helping Sharif.

Al Qaeda operatives seem to have an endless Rolodex of Pakistani establishment figures who are ready to help them. When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in his nightshirt, it was in the home of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a prominent microbiologist whose wife is a local leader in Pakistan’s largest political party. When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, held for weeks and then crudely killed in 2002, it was on property owned by a Pakistani textile magnate. When Pearl’s kidnapper decided to turn himself in, he went to the home of a friendly brigadier general whom he knew well. And so on. When you know terrorists well enough to let them stay over for months on end, they’re family.

Its time to confront the brutal fact that Afghanistan is a sideshow, like Cambodia in 1973. Our war, with its drone planes and Special Forces strikes, is in Pakistan. And a Pakistan that opens its spare bedrooms to al Qaeda leaders and lets the most-wanted man in the world build a three-story complex in its midst isn’t really on our side.

Richard Miniter, an investigative journalist and bestselling author, has just published Mastermind: The Many Faces of 9-11 Architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (Penguin, 2011).