BOSTON — Death came to Osama bin Laden nine years, seven months, and 19 days after the planes he ordered to be hijacked brought down New York's twin towers on that bright September morning.
Death did not come to bin Laden in Afghanistan, however, which America invaded and occupied with the expressed purpose of capturing or killing him. No, America let Osama slip through its fingers at Tora Bora, and, as we now know he lived and died inside Pakistan.
It complicates matters that bin Laden died not in a cave in the so-called lawless tribal territories, close to Afghanistan, but amid some comfort, at least in his last months, in Abbottabad, scarcely an hour’s drive northwest from the capital, Islamabad.
His death, over which America and many in Pakistan are rejoicing, is bound to raise questions. How could Pakistan not know, many will ask, that the most wanted man in the world was living in a compound in an urban area?
U.S. President Barack Obama thanked Pakistan for its cooperation in the bin Laden raid, but other officials are saying that Pakistan was not informed of the operation in advance. That seems hard to believe, because it would be extremely risky if not impossible for American helicopters to go deep into Pakistani territory without the Pakistani military knowing about it. And since Osama’s body was buried at sea, we know the Americans didn’t all come the short way, over the border from Afghanistan.
It is also highly unlikely that positive identification and keeping an eye on where bin Laden was living could be achieved without help from Pakistan — an operation that has been ongoing since August.
But on the other hand, many will ask, how could bin Laden have lived in Pakistan as he did for so long without help from Pakistan?
The very ambivalence about Pakistan’s role in bin Laden’s death underscores the entire relationship between the two countries. For Americans it is quite simple. Pakistan is not helping as much as it should with the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan harbors anti-American fighters inside its borders, gives them safe havens, and actually gives them passports from time to time for foreign travel.
Americans say too much of Pakistan’s army is deployed in defense against India instead of concentrating against the real threat, the Taliban in their midst.
Although Pakistan has fought against the so-called Pakistan Taliban, which threatens the Pakistani state, Americans say it refuses to sufficiently go after America’s Taliban enemies in their North Waziristan safe havens.
America gives Pakistan billions and we are not getting our money’s worth, America says. And the aid it does give is too often siphoned off by incompetence and corruption, Americans say.
From Pakistan’s point of view, it is anything but simple. What America calls a strategic relationship is, from Pakistan’s point of view, a transactional one. America says: Here’s the money, now do what we say, and do it right now.
Pakistanis feel that for America it’s all about America’s interests, with little or no concern for the interests of Pakistan. Americans do not understand, Pakistanis say, the institutionalized nature of its cold war with India, which is just as deep an existential struggle as was America’s with the Soviet Union.
Pakistan has been very helpful ferreting out Arabs living in their midst. And much of Al Qaeda’s top leadership is Arab. But when it comes to making war against its own people, Pakistan has to walk more carefully. Pakistan’s unity has always been fragile, and conciliation has to go hand in hand with military efforts to suppress dissent, Pakistanis say.
Don’t forget, Pakistanis say, that 80 percent of America’s military equipment for the Afghan war comes through the port of Karachi. Don’t forget that Pakistan has allowed drone attacks which are desperately unpopular in Pakistan, some times killing as many civilians as they do terrorists. And, although there is cooperation between intelligence services, no country in the world could countenance more CIA Raymond Davis types, gunning down Pakistani citizens in its streets.
The Pakistani army has more soldiers fighting the Taliban on its northwest frontier than Americans have fighting in Afghanistan, and they have taken far more casualties. As for safe havens, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that when the Pakistani army forces Taliban out they can sometime have safe havens across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistani military men will also tell you that their army is not ready to attack North Waziristan when South Wasziristan, and other tribal territories, are not yet sufficiently secured. Not even the British, in their long wars on the frontier, took on all the tribes at once. Better to pay some tribes off while you attack others.
But the nub of the problem is that Pakistan knows that America will one day go, and Pakistan will be left with a messy Afghanistan, as has happened before. Therefore, as a hedge, Pakistan wants to keep relationships with some groups which Pakistan feels will be important when and if a deal with the Taliban is made. Why ask us to kill our friends in the Afghan Taliban with whom, one day, you will be bargaining? Pakistan could help you get out of Afghanistan if you would let us, Pakistanis say.
In the end, the demise of Osama bin Laden will be a plus for the US –Pakistani relationship. It doesn’t go to the core of the problem, but it removes a major irritant, especially if it turns out that Pakistan was a major help in finding him. The question of how much the Pakistanis knew about bin Laden's residency will probably be left unanswered. Both countries need each other too much for it to be otherwise.