Commentary: Pakistan may have paid a small price with bin Laden

The Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottadad, Pakistan
The Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottadad, Pakistan Saeed Shah/MCT

People danced in the street outside the White House and at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan upon hearing that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Did the death of the man who inspired, if not orchestrated, attacks against the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and U.S.S. Cole mark the end of the War on Terrorism?

Or was it just a reason to celebrate?

One congressperson pronounced that former President George W. Bush deserved the credit because he promised that America wouldn't rest until bin Laden had been caught, dead or alive.

Supporters of President Obama see it somewhat differently. To them, attributing credit to the former president for running bin Laden to ground is like applauding a fired football coach for a championship because he recruited the quarterback four years earlier.

A Herald reader thinks neither president deserves praise. By rights, he wrote, that falls to the crack team of Navy Seals who were helicoptered into Pakistan, broke into a fortified compound and killed the terrorism icon.

Surely then, credit also should be extended to CIA analysts and others who provided the intelligence that led to what appears to have been a near flawless operation. Indeed, it's likely that hundreds of individuals played a role, although few were aware of the target's identity.

No matter what one thinks of Obama, we shouldn't underestimate the courage it took to pull the string on the raid in Abbottabad. Then-President Jimmy Carter made a similar call in April 1980 when he approved Operation Eagle Claw, an unsuccessful mission to rescue more than 50 Americans captured when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized by revolutionaries. That failure led to the death of eight U.S. servicemen and contributed to Ronald Reagan's victory that November.

Less clear is how last week's big story will affect U.S. relations with Pakistan. Several in Congress have vowed to sever aid to Islamabad if it's shown that the government was aware that bin Laden had been sequestered, not in remote mountain caves near the Afghanistan border, but in a compound 35 miles from the capital -- virtually next door to Pakistan's equivalent of West Point.

If some in Pakistan's highly touted intelligence service didn't know bin Laden's location, the alternative conclusion would be equally unpalatable: We don't want to depend on an ally incompetent enough to overlook that the world's most wanted man had been living just down the road for several years.

Chances are, we'll get a peek at bin Laden's mutilated carcass before we'll be enlightened about the degree of Pakistan's complicity either in protecting bin Laden or in helping ferret him out.

Sure, his elimination was a coup for our side, but it's inconceivable that U.S. forces pulled it off without assistance or compliance from Pakistani officials. For one thing, there's no way the president would have sent troops onto the sovereign soil of a key ally without at least tacit permission.

The same can be said for the hundreds of drone strikes that the U.S. has conducted inside Pakistan in recent years. For the sake of domestic tranquility, Islamabad routinely cries foul, but those protestations remind us of what Capt. Renault, the character played by Claude Rains in "Casablanca," said just before he was handed his roulette winnings: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Congress isn't likely to be satisfied by any explanation of the relationship between Pakistan's government and the pro-Taliban insurgency. Suffice it to say, it's complicated. From our vantage point, it's tempting to see this as a black or white issue, but it's one shaded by decades - if not centuries - of conflict, involving Pakistan, India, the Soviet Union and the United States, among others. Afghanistan might be the chessboard, but most of the pieces, including bin Laden, originated somewhere else.

Finally, it shouldn't be overlooked that in recent weeks, key figures in the Obama administration had been increasingly blunt in hinting that billions in assistance to Pakistan would be linked to assistance in routing insurgent forces hiding within its borders.

We may never know whether those hints had become an ultimatum. If so, some Pakistani leaders evidently decided Osama bin Laden was a small price to pay.