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Operation underlines distrust of Pakistan

That the world's most wanted man died in a comfortable compound near Pakistan's main military academy underscores a long-held concern: Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country and font of Islamic radicalism, is an extremely shaky partner in the global war on terror.

Though the Pakistani government had insisted it didn't know the whereabouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, "its position of plausible deniability has been blown apart'' by his death, says Farzana Shaikh, an expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"What has happened deepens suspicion that Pakistan has continued to play a double game,'' she says. "The fact Mr. bin Laden was discovered not in a cave in Waziristan where one might think he enjoyed the protection of local tribal elders, but within a stone's throw of the capital in one of our garrison cities suggests people high up in the military and intelligence establishment knew there was a high-value target in the compound.''

Late Sunday, U.S. Navy SEALs shot to death the al-Qaida leader in the leafy city of Abbottabad, home to many retired army officers and just a 90-minute drive from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and Rawalpindi, the army's headquarters.

Pakistan's government and military issued statements strongly supporting the U.S. operation. But the fact that the Americans acted alone, apparently without informing the Pakistanis, shows the deep distrust between these reluctant allies.

Bin Laden's killing prompted calls to re-evaluate U.S. aid to Pakistan, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday there would be no immediate cutback in funding for the war in Afghanistan.

Regardless, the demise of the al-Qaida leader could mark the start of another difficult period in U.S.-Pakistani relations, which already had been strained in recent months by U.S. drone attacks and the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor.

"Even if the government and army are standing together, there is going to be a lot of popular resentment at what is seen as another example of U.S. high-handedness,'' says Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and an expert on Asian politics.

"On the other hand, I think there's going to be some concern, particularly in the government and army, that the United States, having accomplished its biggest, most symbolic objective of the past 10 years, may decide not to bother with the Pakistanis anymore.''

That would be bad news for a poor country of 187 million that has received nearly $20 billion in U.S. aid in the past decade. But it would hardly be surprising, given that the United States and Pakistan already have gone through "three marriages and two divorces,'' as Schaffer puts it.

During the Cold War, relations were strong, with Pakistan seen as bulwark against communism. But the United States cut off military aid to both Pakistan and its much bigger neighbor, India, when they went to war against each other in 1965.

The loss of aid "was devastating to Pakistan,'' Schaffer says, and generated a lasting sense that the Unites States could not be trusted.

The next "marriage'' began in 1979 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the CIA covertly worked with Pakistan to arm anticommunist fighters. (Ironically, once the Soviets pulled out in 1989, many of those fighters joined forces under bin Laden to battle the United States and others in the "godless'' West.)

The United States and Pakistan remained allies until 1990, when U.S. aid again was cut off as Pakistan developed the world's first "Islamic bomb'' in response to India's nuclear ambitions. (Both countries detonated bombs in 1998.)

Pakistan stayed estranged from the Unites States until the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, with President George W. Bush warning all nations that "you're either with us or against us,'' Pakistan dropped its support of the Taliban government in Afghanistan — which it had viewed as a hedge against India's meddling there — and reluctantly joined the war on terror.

Pakistan intelligence forces nabbed many Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. It also sent tens of thousands of troops into lawless border areas and served as a conduit for the transport of U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan.

But the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the 2007 assassination of pro-U.S. former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad — these and other attacks showed that Pakistan remained a country with a strong vein of anti-Western Islamic extremism.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration stressed Monday that it still considers Pakistan a vital ally. "We believe that partnership is critically important to breaking the back of al-Qaida and terrorism in general," said John Brennan, the White House's chief counterterrorism adviser.

And though bin Laden's death could increase congressional pressure to reduce or even cancel aid to Pakistan, Schaffer says that would be a mistake.

"The fact is the United States still has important interests in Pakistan,'' she says. "As long as we have troops in Afghanistan, we'll be bringing a lot of stuff to support them. As long as we're trying to support political objectives in Afghanistan, we'll be dependent on Pakistan not to undercut them or perhaps to help achieve them. And the United States has a lot riding on Pakistan's ability to stabilize itself and its very fragile economy.

"These are things the United States needs to care about,'' Schaffer says, "even if Osama bin Laden has been killed.''

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Operation underlines distrust of Pakistan 05/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 8:57am]
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