Since President Obama announced Osama bin Laden’s death on the evening of May 1, there has been much speculation regarding Pakistan. Pakistan’s role in the search for bin Laden, internal power dynamics, reaction to the U.S. operation, and future relations with the U.S. remain topics of discussion.
With enough evidence that bin Laden was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Obama directed U.S. forces to undertake a targeted operation to capture bin Laden.
Despite a large presence of Pakistani military personnel in Abbottabad and the compound’s reportedly conspicuous nature, Pakistani intelligence never captured bin Laden.
Skeptics have questioned Pakistan’s repeated claims over the years that it did not know of bin Ladn’s whereabouts.
In recent years, the U.S.’s effort to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the War on Terror has been increasingly oriented toward Pakistan’s mountainous region Waziristan along the Afghan border.
In 2004, the U.S. began launching drone attacks in Pakistan to combat the Taliban as it spilled over the border into the region. When he took office in 2009, Obama continued the attacks and has since expanded the campaign.
Rumors that bin Laden was taking refuge in Pakistan initially began swirling immediately following the September 11 attacks. The rumors continued with fluctuating frequency for a decade.
During their respective terms in office, both Presidents Bush and Obama said that they would conduct action in Pakistan to capture bin Laden if enough intelligence confirmed his location.
In his address to the nation on the evening of bin Laden’s death, Obama said, “Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done.”
Former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf and current Prime Minister Raza Gilani have each publicly said that the U.S. violated Pakistan’s sovereignty with the strike.
“American troops coming across the border and taking action in one of our towns, that is Abbottabad, is not acceptable to the people of Pakistan. It is a violation of our sovereignty,” said Musharraf.
When asked whether the U.S. violated Pakistan’s sovereignty during the strike, Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of international security studies at West Point told The Review,“If the government of Pakistan didn’t give [the U.S.] permission, then [the U.S.] did violate their sovereignty.”
She added, “But American Presidents since Bill Clinton have asserted the right to reach into a country’s territory and prevent potential terrorist threats if states can’t or won’t exercise their responsibility of preventing terrorism from emanating from their country.”
Shortly after taking office in 2008, Pakistan’s current President Asif Ali Zardari publicly asserted Pakistan’s stance on the balance between its sovereignty and fighting the War on Terror.
He addressed Pakistan’s Parliament and said, “We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism.”
According to official statements from U.S. officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Pakistan was and remains a strong ally in the War on Terror. More specifically, Obama and administration officials have said that Pakistan’s assistance was essential to the search for bin Laden.
In his May 1 address to the nation, Obama said, “…It’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.”
The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the President’s statement: “Our counter-terrorism cooperation over a number of years now, with Pakistan, has contributed greatly to our efforts to dismantle al-Qaeda.”
Pakistan has not taken any major action against the U.S. beyond complaints and warnings to the U.S. to never undertake a similar strike.
“Any similar action violating the sovereignty of Pakistan will warrant a review on the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States,” said General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of Pakistan’s army.
Moving forward, it is unclear what U.S.-Pakistan relations will look like, both politically and militarily.
Schake observed, “It’s going to be rough going because there’s no explanation [for not capturing bin Laden that] the Pakistani military and intelligence community can give that doesn’t either show them to be duplicitous or incompetent. So they have an interest in fanning the flames of anti-Americanism.”
For now, Pakistani officials appear content to reiterate their warnings to the U.S., but seem unwilling to take punitive actions against the U.S. for what they consider a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.