The US had known for over a decade that Pakistan wouldn’t cooperate to hunt down Osama bin Laden, show declassified state department cables, made public Thursday.
This might explain the sage-like response of the US government to finding bin Laden just a short distance from Islamabad. And not enraged as the lawmakers and common Americans without access to this privileged wisdom.
“After having spoken to numerous Pakistani interlocutors, our impression is that the GOP (government of Pakistan) is not disposed to be especially helpful on the matter of terrorist Osama bin Ladin,” said a US embassy cable from Islamabad.
This cable was written and sent by the mission in December 1998, just a few months after Al Qaeda bombed US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing hundreds of people. Bin Laden was now Enemy No 1.
Then US president Bill Clinton had ordered cruise missile attacks on an Al Qaeda camp in Khost, Afghanistan, but failed to get bin Laden, who had apparently slipped away on a tip from friends in Pakistan.
To put the above cable, and the others released, in context, Pakistan didn’t have bin Laden then like now. The terrorist mastermind was based in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban as an honoured guest and financier.
Pakistan was one of the three nations that recognized the Taliban government, and had considerable influence over it. The US was putting pressure on Pakistan to use its influence to get bin Laden expelled.
The declassified cables show the US was bringing pressure on the Pakistanis from all sides, but without much success. “All (Pak interlocutors) took the line that issue of bin Ladin is a problem that the US has with the Taliban, not with Pakistan.”
That cable went on to quote from an article written by a Pakistani journalist described as close to the foreign ministry and the intelligence service ISI that the US was pretty much on its own on bin Laden.
The Taliban would not give up bin Laden, and that the only way to spring him from Afghanistan was through military or clandestine measures and, the article said, Pakistan had made it clear it wanted no part in it.
Bin Laden was found and killed in exactly this kind of operation last Sunday. No wonder then that the US neither asked Pakistan for help nor informed it of it. Pakistan couldn’t be trusted, said CIA chief Leon Panetta. He knew.
The cables showed Pakistan had decided to listen to the US but do nothing about it. “(Foreign minister Sartaj) Aziz listened carefully, but his response contained little that was new,” complained an Islamabad embassy cable from January 1999.
In October 2000, al Qaeda rammed a boat laden with bombs into a US Navy ship – USS Cole – near Yemen killing 17 soldiers. Washington now tried even harder to get Pakistan’s help on capturing bin Laden, with frustratingly unchanging results..
“U/S (Thomas) Pickering opened the meeting (in New York) by expressing disappointment that Pakistan, whom he called a good friend, was not taking steps to help with bin Laden,” said a state department cable of November 20, 2000.
Less than a year later, al Qaeda operatives working on the orders of bin Laden crashed two US airliners into the World Trade Center in the same city, and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC, killing in all nearly 3,000 people.