Pakistani officials angered by the secret U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden declared they would conduct a full review of operations by U.S. drone aircraft over the country and rebuffed an appeal by visiting U.S. officials not to close military intelligence liaison centers, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Islamabad on Friday in a bid to ease the mistrust deepened by the secret May 2 raid that killed the Al Qaeda chief.
Pakistani leaders see the raid as a blatant violation of their country’s sovereignty, and Washington’s decision to not inform Islamabad in advance as an example of a glaring lack of trust. For the U.S., Bin Laden’s presence in the military city of Abbottabad, just 35 miles from the capital, renewed long held suspicions among many in the U.S. that Pakistan’s intelligence community, or elements within it, knew that the Al Qaeda leader was there and did nothing about it.
Clinton, in a meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and other leaders, emphasized that the U.S. has seen no evidence that anyone in the upper echelons of Pakistani leadership knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
Officials on both sides described Friday’s meeting as blunt, and acknowledged that serious disagreements remained. But they said the two sides also agreed that the relationship is mutually beneficial.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said that Pakistani officials rebuffed a U.S. request not to close the liaison offices in Peshawar and Quetta that have been used to share intelligence on militants with Pakistani ground forces.
Pakistan recently ordered U.S. special operations personnel at the so-called “intelligence fusion cells” to leave the country, a setback for U.S. efforts to form closer ties with Pakistani units fighting militants along with the border with Afghanistan. U.S. officials remain hopeful that they can persuade Islamabad to allow the U.S. personnel to reestablish the intelligence-sharing centers, the official said.
Pakistani officials said Zardari also said his government intended to review all aspects of operations by unmanned U.S. drone aircraft. The campaign of drone airstrikes is deeply unpopular among Pakistanis.
Operating from a base in Pakistan, the CIA regularly sends armed drones to fire missiles at Al Qaeda and other militant suspects in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The CIA also reportedly operated a stealth drone aircraft, known as the RQ 170 Sentinel, before and during the May 2 raid on Bin Laden’s compound. Pakistani officials were alarmed because unlike most drones, the Sentinel is designed to evade radar and other surveillance systems, and can be used as a spy plane.
It was unclear whether Pakistan intended to take dramatic steps to curtail the drone program. Drone attacks have increased substantially during the Obama administration, and serve as one of the main U.S. tools for fighting Al Qaeda and its allies.
In the wake of the Bin Laden raid, Clinton said, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship reached a “turning point” that required Pakistani leaders to improve cooperation with the U.S. in uprooting Al Qaeda and its allied militant groups from Pakistani territory.
“We will do our part, and we look to the government of Pakistan to take decisive steps in days ahead,” Clinton said at a news conference in the capital, accompanied by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Clinton said she came away from the meetings encouraged, although she did not specify what efforts Pakistan had pledged to make against militants. “We heard today, for short-term cooperation, some very specific actions that Pakistan will take, and that we will take together,” Clinton said.
Pakistani officials insisted that all counter-terrorism operations be conducted jointly, unlike the Bin Laden attack. But senior U.S. officials, including President Obama, have said the United States must reserve the right to conduct military operations in secret in some cases.
Clinton’s brief visit marked the culmination of a month-long effort by the Obama administration to repair relations with Pakistan. The administration asked Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to visit Islamabad and help ease tensions. Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, then flew in to pave the way for Clinton’s visit.
During the meeting Friday, U.S. officials renewed their long-standing request for Pakistan to move more decisively against Islamist militant groups, including the Haqqani network, according to one person familiar with the meeting who asked to remain unidentified. The Haqqani group, a wing of the Afghan Taliban, uses the North Waziristan region of Pakistan as safe haven from which to launch attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan troops battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has repeatedly rejected those requests, arguing that it already is battling militants in other tribal areas and does not have the manpower for another offensive.
However, its widely believed that Pakistan views the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban as likely key players in Afghanistan’s future once the U.S. pulls out — at which point Pakistan would prefer them as allies and not foes.
On the question of Pakistani support for Bin Laden, Clinton appeared to come away from Friday’s meeting convinced that the country’s top leadership did not know the Al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts.
“They were quite emotional in conveying how they would have gone after him if they had known he was there,” Clinton said. “As [President Zardari] said, there’s a lot of reason to believe Al Qaeda was behind his wife’s murder.” Zardari’s wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007.
Pakistani authorities have begun both civilian and military investigations into Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad for as many as five years, and whether any Pakistani officials helped him hide.
Clinton said the Pakistani leaders “were very forthcoming in saying somebody, somewhere was providing some kind of support.”
Despite the turmoil caused by the Bin Laden raid, Pakistani authorities allowed a CIA team to visit Bin Laden’s sprawling compound Friday to gather forensic evidence. The Pakistani government has also returned the broken tail of a U.S. helicopter that crashed during the raid, and has allowed U.S. investigators to question Bin Laden’s wives in Pakistani custody.