ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON]: It was different the first time US forces went after bin Laden.
Washington’s first attempt to kill the al Qaeda leader came in August 1998. President Bill Clinton launched 66 cruise missiles from the Arabian Sea at camps in Khost in eastern Afghanistan to kill the group’s top brass in retaliation for the suicide bombings on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The CIA had received word that al Qaeda’s leadership was due to meet. But Bin Laden canceled the meeting and several US officials said at the time they believed the ISI had tipped him off.
The US military informed their Pakistani counterparts about 90 minutes before the missiles entered Pakistan’s airspace, just in case they mistook them for an Indian attack. Then US Secretary of State William Cohen came to suspect bin Laden escaped because he was tipped off. Four days before the operation, the State Department issued a public warning about a “very serious threat” and ordered hundreds of nonessential US personnel and dependents out of Pakistan. Some US officials said the Taliban could have passed the word to bin Laden on an ISI tip. Other former officials have disputed the notion of a security breach, saying bin Laden had plenty of notice that the United States intended to retaliate following the bombings in Africa.
Now that the US has finally killed bin Laden, what will change? The Pakistani intelligence official acknowledged that bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan will cause more problems with the United States.
“It looks bad,” he said. “It’s pretty embarrassing.” But he denied that Pakistan had been hiding bin Laden, and noted that the CIA had struggled to find bin Laden for years as well.
Perhaps. But the last few days are unlikely to convince the CIA and other US agencies to trust their Pakistani counterparts with any kind of secrets or partnership.
Recent personnel changes at the top of the Obama Administration also do not bode well for salvaging the relationship. Panetta, a former Congressman and senior White House official, is a political operator who officials say at least got on cordially, if not well, with ISI chief Pasha. But Panetta is being reassigned to take over from Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. His replacement at the CIA will be General David Petraeus, the commander of US military operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
The biggest issue on Petraeus’s agenda will be dealing with Pakistan’s ISI. The US general’s relationship with Pakistani Army chief of Staff Kayani, Pasha’s immediate superior, is publicly perceived to be so unfriendly that it has become a topic of discussion on Pakistani TV talk shows.
“I think it is going to be a very strained and difficult relationship,” said Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He characterised the attitude on both sides as “mutual distrust.”
After a decade of American involvement in Afghanistan, experts say that Petraeus and Pakistani intelligence officials know each other well enough not to like each other.