Whether Pakistan knew about bin Laden – and why it doesn’t matter

Last year, Aljazeera English managed to leak classified Pakistani files known as the Abbottabad Commission. Written for the Pakistani Prime Minister, the report blasted Pakistani intelligence and government for failing to notice bin Laden hiding in Abbottabad, calling it “a story of complacency, ignorance, negligence, incompetence, irresponsibility and possibly worse.”

Enter Carlotta Gall. Her piece for the New York Times last week says the very opposite: that Pakistani intelligence knew all along, and in fact has been supporting militant extremism. The entire plot sounds ridiculous: the special top secret desk assigned to Bin laden (that is completely deniable) within the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence services, and the safe houses where they store protected militants.

If you believe the Abbottabad Commission, there’s the terror that comes with having a strategic partner that knows absolutely nothing about what’s happening within its borders. But in the other scenario, what do you do when your “ally” knows too much, much more than it will ever let on? Yet even with Gall’s piece in mind, the truth seems to be a combination of both stories: apparently the ISI struggles to keep a hold on the very elements it hides from the outside world.

Unfortunately for the U.S., trying to piece together what is actually happening in Pakistan is not going to help. The United States has had an uneasy relationship with Pakistan not just since bin Laden was killed, but dating back to the 1980s when the CIA and ISI propped up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Cold War against the Soviets. The U.S. doesn’t have a choice in its complicated relationship with Pakistan. If the U.S. is ever to deal with Afghanistan, it must deal with Pakistan (obviously cooperation is all but impossible with Iran, Afghanistan’s other large neighbor). And even when the focus shifts away from Afghanistan, as it will this year, Pakistan still can’t be ignored. If Carlotta’s comment that America’s fear of “greater confrontation with a powerful Muslim nation” seems odd, considering how poor and reliant on aid Pakistan is, just look at a world map. It’s geostrategic importance lies in it being smack in the middle of Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China. (Plus it’s a nuclear power.) A semblance of a relationship will have to maintained with this Muslim nation of 180 million people with (if the Abbottabad Commission is to believed) crumbling security. The trickiness lies in knowing what to believe.

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