The facts, by themselves, appear highly incriminating. Osama bin Laden was finally run to ground in an outsized compound on the outskirts of Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city just 30 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. It is an army town, home to the Pakistani version of West Point, which is located less than a mile from where bin Laden met his final end. Many retired army officers live in the same neighborhood. How could the Pakistanis not have known he was there?
After several days of embarrassed silence, Pakistani intelligence officials suggested they had simply messed up. They said they had raided the compound in 2003 when it was under construction but had found nothing and let it drop from their radar screens. U.S. intelligence officials, for their part, said they had no evidence that the Pakistanis knew bin Laden was there. This did not assuage Western critics, who found it hard to believe that bin Laden could successfully hide out for several years in an army town in the middle of Pakistan. CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress the Pakistanis were either involved or incompetent and a number of U.S. lawmakers have suggested that the United States cut off economic assistance to Pakistan, threatening to send what is already an acrimonious relationship into a potentially fatal tail spin.
Since the world of intelligence is a decidedly murky one, it is possible that we will never have definitive proof on this matter. We are left, therefore, in the realm of motives and speculation. What possible motivation could the Pakistanis have had for permitting Osama bin Laden to live in their midst? One possibility, indeed the one that seems to lie behind much Western speculation on the subject, is that Pakistan was somehow secretly supporting bin Laden and al Qaeda. If true, this would represent an extreme example of double dealing, even by Pakistani standards. If there has been one seeming constant in U.S.-Pakistani relations since 9/11 it has been Pakistani willingness to cooperate in going after al Qaeda. The Pakistanis played instrumental roles in bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other senior al Qaeda operatives to justice. This support for the U.S. war on terror had caused many of the jihadist groups the Pakistanis had been supporting in their insurgent war against India in Kashmir to turn against them. At U.S. urging, the Pakistanis sent the army into the tribal areas beginning in early 2004 to look for al Qaeda militants. This brought them into conflict with the local Pakistanis protecting them, who subsequently banded together to form the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistanis have been fighting a bloody war against them and their al Qaeda mentors ever since.
They may have concluded that a compound on the outskirts of an army town like Abbottabad would be the last place the Pakistanis would expect the al Qaeda leader to hide.
One of the main features of that war has been a domestic terrorism campaign inside the Pakistani heartland, whose primary targets have been Pakistani security forces, including the army and its intelligence service ISI. To take just one example, in December 2009, the son of the lieutenant general commanding Pakistani forces in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was killed in an attack on a mosque frequented by army families in Rawalpindi. He died along with a major general and 40 others, 16 of them children. Nor has ISI escaped lightly. Its headquarters in Lahore, Peshawar, and Multan have all been car bombed by al Qaeda affiliated terrorists, with considerable loss of life. Why would the Pakistan army extend protection to the leader of a group whose operatives had been actively engaged in committing terrorist attacks against it? And what possible strategic advantage would have justified the risk? It is easy enough to see why the Pakistanis support the Afghan Taliban. They see them as a hedge against an Indian alliance with the Karzai government once the U.S. has departed.
But what do they get from protecting Osama bin Laden? He was not just any terrorist, but the great bête noire of the United States, whose stated goal was to destroy America. Anyone protecting him would be certain to be regarded as an enemy of the United States. The Pakistanis must surely have realized that if Washington ever discovered they were protecting him, this would bring their relationship to an abrupt and highly confrontational end. This might still be the result if evidence of collaboration is found somewhere among the artifacts spirited out of the bin Laden compound by the Navy SEAL team. It is also useful to consider the matter from bin Laden’s perspective. He may have been evil but he was no dummy. Given the factors cited above, how likely is it that he would have trusted a Pakistan army offer to have him come stay with them in Abbottabad?
Another possibility is that the Pakistanis knew, or suspected, that bin Laden was holed up in the Abbottabad compound but decided to do nothing about it. There is a regrettable tendency among the people who rule Pakistan, civilian and military alike, to kick serious problems down the road and it is hard to conceive of a more serious problem than this. An argument can also be made that they would have been concerned about the domestic reaction to news that they had killed bin Laden themselves or turned him over to the United States. On a superficial level, bin Laden remained something of a folk hero to many Muslims, Pakistanis included. There would very likely have been demonstrations by religious radicals and a possible upsurge in terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban and its al Qaeda allies. But such events would be unlikely to pose a substantially increased threat. Protest demonstrations and terrorist attacks already constitute part of the background noise of day-to-day Pakistani life. Every significant jihadist and radical sectarian group in Pakistan save one, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has already turned against the state.
Pakistan, on the other hand, stood to gain enormous good will with the United States if it had delivered bin Laden into Washington’s hands. This would have reversed in an instant much of the damage that has accumulated in relations during the past several years over Afghanistan and the Pakistani refusal to take on the Afghan Taliban in North Waziristan. More importantly, it would arguably have promoted what the Pakistanis regard as one of their most important strategic objectives, combating Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani policy toward their Afghan neighbor has been driven by mistrust of Hamid Karzai and his Northern Alliance supporters and concern about the substantial Indian presence in the country. As noted above, they support the Afghan Taliban out of fear that if they are defeated the United States will depart, leaving behind a hostile Afghan government allied with India. Although they have no great love for the Afghan Taliban, whose hosting of al Qaeda in the years leading to 9/11 got them into their current fix, their fear of Indian encirclement trumps all other concerns.
At the same time, the Pakistanis read the newspapers and were well aware that public opinion in the United States has been turning against the war and that the Obama administration would like to begin winding it down. Since the U.S. originally went into Afghanistan with the intention of defeating al Qaeda and bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, they would probably have believed, not without reason, that his death or capture would substantially serve that goal, providing the U.S. with the pretext it needs to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in earnest. This would leave the Afghan Taliban intact as a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan. So the Pakistanis would have had a very powerful reason for bringing bin Laden to justice if they had actually known where he was. I suspect their current embarrassment over the circumstances surrounding his demise is leavened considerably by the hope and expectation that his death will have just this result.
It has also been suggested that General Kayani, the current army chief, and his predecessor, President Musharraf, may not have known that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but that elements in the army or ISI, possibly sympathetic to al Qaeda, did know and kept it to themselves. It would be one thing if individual army or ISI personnel had been recruited by al Qaeda and entrusted with the knowledge that he was there. They would merely be turncoats. But it would be considerably more damning if an entire ISI unit, such as its shadowy S wing, had been conducting its own pro-al Qaeda policy, without the knowledge or permission of its superiors. To believe this, however, you would need to believe, not only that they would risk pursuing a policy that ran counter to that of their ISI superiors, but that they would be able to do so without the knowledge of those superiors, who included, not so very long ago, General Kayani himself.
But this still does not explain how Osama bin Laden could have taken up residence in his Abbottabad compound without being detected or why on earth he would have chosen it as his hiding place in the first place. One possibility is that, with the increased Pakistan army presence in the tribal areas beginning in early 2004, and the increasing proliferation of U.S. intelligence assets and drone attacks in the years following, bin Laden and his security people decided the region was no longer safe. They may have concluded that a compound on the outskirts of an army town like Abbottabad would be the last place the Pakistanis would expect the al Qaeda leader to hide. His minders would have invented a good cover story for why such a sizeable compound was there—it is not really that large by Pakistani standards—and watched the neighborhood for months and maybe years for evidence of inquiries or signs of surveillance before hustling him in under the cover of darkness. There he would remain for year after year—five in total if you believe his captured wife—hidden behind high walls meant to guard against prying eyes.
Is this, or something like it, the true story? The possibility cannot be ruled out, particularly when weighed alongside the others. Unfortunately, unless a smoking gun turns up, as with so much else that goes on in the murky world of terrorism, we may never learn the real truth of the matter.
John R. Schmidt teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He served in the State Department during a 30-year foreign service career, including as political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in the years leading up to 9/11. His first book, The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad, will be published in September, 2011.