WASHINGTON — Tensions are escalating between the U.S. and Pakistan, with everyone from President Barack Obama to top American intelligence officials warning the truth will soon emerge if Pakistani officials were knowingly housing Osama bin Laden for years before Navy SEALs finally got their man.
The Pakistani prime minister fired back Monday — a week after bin Laden was gunned down in a compound near his nation’s capital — with the threat that any further U.S. military action within its borders and without its consent would be met with “full force” by Pakistan, an unsteady nuclear arms state.
“No one should underestimate the resolve and capability of our nation and armed forces to defend our sacred homeland,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a speech to parliament.
A day after Obama told CBS’s 60 Minutes that the U.S. must investigate whether Pakistan spent years harbouring the man behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gilani vehemently denied it.
“Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd. Pakistan is not the birthplace of al-Qaida. We did not invite Osama bin Laden to Pakistan or even to Afghanistan.”
He added: “Elimination of Osama bin Laden, who launched waves after waves of terrorists attacks against innocent Pakistanis, is indeed justice done.”
But when the SEALs removed bin Laden’s body from the compound after gunning him down last week, they also departed with another bounty — almost a dozen computers, roughly 100 thumb-drives, videos and several cellphones with a variety of contact information.
Intelligence officials have called the stash a “treasure trove” that might be more useful for national security purposes than the death of bin Laden himself.
The data will likely reveal just how much the Pakistan government knew, U.S. officials say, as will interviewing three of bin Laden’s wives who were at the compound during the raid and are now in Pakistani custody.
“We are obviously doing a full investigation and examining some of the substantial material that our operators collected in bin Laden’s compound for evidence of the support network that must have existed,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told the daily media briefing on Monday.
Obama made clear there is no evidence yet that high-ranking government or intelligence officials in Pakistan were aware of bin Laden’s presence at the compound. But other lawmakers and American intelligence officials have expressed doubts that Pakistani officials could have possibly been in the dark for as long as six years.
Pakistan and the U.S. have been uneasy allies in the so-called war on terror since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Americans have provided Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid, and some are now suggesting that cash flow be cut off if it’s revealed Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Even before bin Laden’s death, tensions were simmering between the two nations.
Pakistan has bitterly complained about unmanned drone strikes launched by American forces in the tribal regions along the country’s northwest border with Afghanistan, while the U.S. has been growing impatient with Pakistani officials over their strategy to fight militants along that boundary.
Now there is new wrangling between the two nations, with Carney characterizing their relationship as “complicated.”
The CIA is angry that Pakistani officials have leaked the name of its top official in Islamabad to Pakistani news media, something considered a deliberate attempt to undermine the spy agency in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death.
American officials also want to interview the three bin Laden wives who lived with him in the compound, including one who was shot in the leg attempting to protect her husband before he was killed. As well, they want access to materials seized at the compound after Navy SEALs had vacated the property.
Pakistan has not said whether they’ll consent.
Carney said Monday the U.S. was confident Pakistan would do the right thing.
“We obviously are very interested in getting access to the three wives … as well as the information or the material that the Pakistanis collected after U.S. forces left,” he told the daily press briefing.
“We’re going to have those conversations, and we hope and expect to make progress …. We believe that it is very important to maintain a co-operative relationship with Pakistan precisely because it’s in our national security interest to do so.”
In his remarks on Monday, Gilani agreed that the failure to find bin Laden was a mistake. But it wasn’t just Pakistan’s falldown, he said.
“Yes, there has been an intelligence failure,” said Gilani. “It is not only ours but of all the intelligence agencies of the world.”
Nonetheless there are no regrets from the White House over its bin Laden raid, with Carney stressing Monday the U.S. does not apologize. But as for Obama’s previously announced plans to visit Pakistan this year?
“I don’t have any scheduling updates,” he said.