Why the U.S. officially ‘believes’ Pakistan’s bin Laden story

May 20, 2015
U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Pakistan's PM Sharif at the White House in Washington

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington October 23, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Why do allies sometimes pretend to believe one another’s lies? There are good reasons and bad, as new evidence about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan demonstrates.

Throughout its “war on terrorism,” the United States has had to rely on Pakistan. Though Washington may occasionally have believed its trust was abused, the Pentagon’s need for overflight rights or landing bases, crucial for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, trumped diplomatic niceties.

The American people may wonder if this trumped self-respect as well. Seasoned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh recently wrote about Pakistan’s possibly problematic role in the U.S. capture of Osama bin Laden for the London Review of Books. Hersh, who broke both the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam War and the Abu Ghraib torture story during the war in Iraq, alleges that Islamabad kept bin Laden under lock and key in Abbottabad for six years — even as U.S. intelligence urgently tried to track him down. Combing treacherous mountains and ravines for the world’s most wanted man, Washington may have risked and lost lives unnecessarily.

Journalist Seymour Hersh speaks at Al Jazeera Forum "Media and the Middle East - Beyond the Headlines" in Doha

Journalist Seymour Hersh speaks at Al Jazeera Forum in Doha, April 1, 2007. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad

New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall agrees with some of Hersh’s allegations. She wrote last week that the U.S. government realized Pakistan was undermining its efforts but chose not to make the problem public. Gall confirmed that she learned right after bin Laden’s death that a Pakistani army officer probably sold the secret of the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts to the Americans for a cool $25 million. That piece of intelligence — not six-years worth of CIA blood-hounding — may be what led right to the compound in Abbottabad.

Would Washington ever tolerate such lies from a friend — or condone U.S. leaders covering up for them? When President Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death, he said, “cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound in which he was hiding.” According to Hersh’s reporting, the reverse may have been true.

There are often excellent reasons for not outing a bad ally. In dangerous times, for example, the consequences of a diplomatic rupture can be far worse than swallowing a lie. Poland discovered this during World War Two.

In 1943, Radio Berlin broadcast the discovery of a mass grave of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, a region previously occupied by the Soviet Union under the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by which the Nazis and the Soviets had divided Poland between them. The grave contained the remains of more than 20,000 people shot by the Soviet secret police to thwart resistance.


Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943. Wikipedia

Not long after, Germany turned on Joseph Stalin’s empire, took Poland for itself and attacked the Russian homeland. Nazi officials saw revelations of the massacre as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Moscow and its new Western allies, including the Polish government-in-exile.

Stalin resolutely denied the shocking charges, despite the findings of an international Red Cross forensics team that the Nazis invited to Katyn. The British and U.S. governments refused to confront their ally, and tacitly accepted the subsequent conclusions of a Soviet special report that blamed the execution and mass burial (including approximately 8,000 Polish officers) on Nazi Germany. Russia pretended innocence — and the allies pretended to believe it.

Not surprisingly, the prime minister of the Polish government based in London challenged the story. Wladyslaw Sikorski angrily demanded a thorough, independent investigation. Stalin retaliated by accusing Sikorski of collaborating with the enemy. Russia then broke off diplomatic relations with Poland, nullifying the Sikorski-Mayski treaty that pledged wartime cooperation. The gloves were off.

The consequences for Poland reverberated for 40 years. The Soviet Red Army camped on the opposite side of the Vistula River, waiting while Germany burned Warsaw in 1944. Moscow then refused to recognize the Polish government in 1945 and forced its substitute Communist Polish regime on the country until 1989.

For Poland, it turned out honesty was not the best strategy. Russia finally acknowledged Stalin’s crime only in 1990, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of transparency, or glasnost.

The Katyn massacre is an egregious example of a common phenomenon that is usually far more benign. Nations often look the other way at bad behavior for the simple reason that a cost-benefit analysis would show no point in confrontation. Governments are aware that friends sometimes spy on them, for example. It’s obnoxious but not damaging enough to risk the rewards of continued good relations.

The American people, however, have placed a high value on transparency since the founders wrote the Constitution in 1787. The Constitution requires Congress to publish its proceedings. With this, the United States became the first nation in history to require government transparency by law.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz shortly after arriving in Islamabad

Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz (L) in Islamabad, January 12, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Even if one assumed Pakistani duplicity and that the U.S. government was aware of it, telling the truth would not be anywhere near as catastrophic as the wartime rupture between Poland and Russia. Washington is roughly 7,000 miles from Islamabad; Pakistan’s regular military cannot hurt the United States and would not wish to. But a public breach of trust may have erased any possibility of future cooperation between the two “friends.”

Pakistan was then providing logistical support for the U.S. intervention in neighboring Afghanistan. If Obama knew Pakistan was disloyal, he made the correct short-term choice not to reveal it.

Yet Americans should question their nation’s long-term policy. Had the United States not linked its fortunes with Pakistan in the first place, Obama would not have had to accept Islamabad’s possible lies — and tell fresh ones (or at least dissimulate) to the American people.

In 2004, Washington dubbed Islamabad a “major non-NATO ally” in the war on terror, which entitled Pakistan to foreign aid and new weapons. The United States also lifted economic sanctions previously imposed for illegal nuclear testing. But Pakistan’s usefulness as an ally has proved questionable.

Since 1947, the United States has added nation after nation to its roster of allies. From the progressive expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the widening of the war on terror, the United States has entangled itself with a larger, increasingly diverse cast of countries.

Not all these relationships work equally well.

Choose your friends wisely, the old saying goes, because you’ll end up being like them. Now is the time to evaluate Washington’s longtime friends and reinvigorate relations with the most reliable, honest ones.

Pakistan might not make it into the mix.


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Each country has its own interest they pursue only which is in best interest of the country not other. Pakistan doing same thing.

Posted by AMIRISMAIL | Report as abusive

Sorry I don’t agree with By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman at all. She is totally biased in her opinion. More than one hundred thousands Pakistani have lost their lives (Shaheed, murdered) due to the Terrorism.

What should do more by Pakistan??? If Pakistan was hiding Usama bin Laden then he could hide him again on the safer place before USA unethical and criminal attack. This is the history that no nation has given sacrifices than Pakistan in this war of terrorism. Every day our people are being murdered by bomb blast and gun firing by international agencies like Indian agency RAW, MOSAD etc.

Pakistani people are very peace minded and are tolerating blames, negative world politics, propaganda and injustice for a long time.

Try to investigate and write on “why there is so injustice, poverty and intolerance” particularly against Muslims E.g. Kashmir issue, Philistine issue, Barma etc.”.

Why America is being fighting War for a long time due some other reason?Why they are always unnecessarily involved in other countries matters?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_war s_involving_the_United_States

American Governments not only have suffered other nations but also Americans. American people are not pleased with their Govt. policies.

America should change their policy of War by negotiations and discussions peacefully.

Let’s work together to find truth of injustice and showing patience and tolerance for their peaceful solutions and get rid the blame game.
Allah Hafiz.

Posted by Amalah | Report as abusive

Pakistan does not seem like a single “nation state” entity, more a collection of competing components, with any top leadership dependent on juggling fluid interests and political alliances. The Karzai (and current?) power in Afghanistan seems similar, and current Iraq. So any agreements/alliances/deceptions with outside powers such as the USA maybe just become cards in the local poker game, played for gambits and perhaps trumped.
So my sympathy for the US State Department etc, or India, trying to get a clear win-win.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Pakistan is not to be trusted. It is a terrorist nation, and India is right to keep them at bay.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

When Soviets had invaded Afghanistan who came running. Commies are coming, commies are coming. It was CIA who invented the Jihadi movement with the help of Saudis and ISI. They all are scratching each others back. There is saying when you are in Coal business, expect to have your face and hand black.

Posted by indusman | Report as abusive

It’s a pretty long stretch to argue that Stalin acted the way he did because of Sikorski’s protest. He had pretty well decided his future actions on Poland when he signed Molotov-Ribbentrop, and he did execute 20,000 prisoners. Stalin hated the Poles, and that started long before 1944.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

America always looked at short term gains and losses …. They never thought that Mujaheddin they were raising to to Fight Soviets will one day come back to haunt.

They played with Pakistan in 1980s and Pakistan gave back to them in 2001-2014.

It costed more than trillion dollars and thousand of american lives fighting the WRONG enemy in Afghanistan … while epicenter of terrorism was there in Pakistan Military/ISI. America could have attacked terrorist centuries in Pakistan, arm twisted Generals …. they could have closed the war in one year flat with just $100 mn dollars expense.

A sixth grade student could figure this out …. not sure why CIA/American Govt/Political apparatus was not aware.

Pakistan’s foundation is based on negativity/hostility towards Non-Muslims …. This will lead to destruction only … As we are witnessing/witnessed over the years in IRAQ/SYRIA/EGYPT/LIBIA/NIGERIA/IRAN/YAMA N etc Muslims are killing muslims.

In Last 65 years Pakistan decimated its minority population(hindus, christens and sikhs – population down fron 25% at independence to less than 1% today) …

Its turning its head to minority muslims sects like Shia, ahmadiyas, ismailis, bohras, barelvis, sufis etc … (They are 20-25% of population today)

Unless Pakistan course corrects and sets +VE vision/development agenda for itself – its future will remain in peril …

Posted by ppsr | Report as abusive

No one trusts the US….trust me on this one, not even Americans believe their govt.

Posted by MikeHass | Report as abusive

Most Americans don’t believe the official US fairy tale…

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

I think that they got OBL … when he & AQ was not able to do anything …. mean while lions Republican Army Popped up, AQAP popped up, Al-shabab popped up, Boko harampopped up, than ISIS popped up , iraq / syria / libya / now saudia / yemen / iran …. as having been in the UN interesting fact out of 5500 – 6000 years of humanity there have been only 150 years of complete would peace thats 2.5% …humanity is doomed while elite people prosper …. weapons do not help solve humainites problems yet we wage wars and build hatred to wage more wars

Posted by YNGAMING | Report as abusive

Russians tend to believe Russian fairy tales more than Americans believe American fairy tales.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It seems Hersh story is causing american journalist community to lose their panties.

Posted by indusman | Report as abusive