US-Pakistan relations fray following killing of Bin Laden

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by James Maxwell

Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, a small town forty or so miles north of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, questions have been raised as to the commitment of the Pakistani state in the war against Islamist militancy in the region.

According to US deputy national security adviser John Brennan, Bin Laden, unquestionably the world’s most recognisable and influential jihadist, had been sheltering in a large compound within walking distance from an elite military academy in the town for as many as six years.

This has lead some in the West, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, to suggest that the deceased Al Qaeda chief had benefited from an “extensive network of support” inside the country. Although Pakistani President Ali Asif Zardari has since he first took office in 2009 insisted that Al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan is negligible, Western analysts have long suspected that Pakistan’s central security agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been channelling funds and information to extremist Islamic groups.

These suspicions were enough to convince President Obama not to give any prior warning of the operation to his counterpart in Islamabad, fuelling speculation that Washington has lost trust in one of its longest standing and most geo-politically significant allies.

Despite recent references by both Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the “shared interests” of the United States and Pakistan, there are clear signs that tensions between the two countries are beginning to deepen.

Former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, who is thought to be planning a return from exile to mainstream electoral politics in Pakistan, has already described the raid as a “violation of Pakistani sovereignty”, while a number US Congressmen have begun to express opposition to Washington’s military aid grants to Pakistan, which amount to approximately $1bn a year.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that the killing took place in the context of increasing Islamist violence across the country.  The frequency of suicide attacks in major Pakistani cities and of targeted assassinations of well-known secular politicians has intensified since the start of 2011.  There can be little doubt that radical Islamic elements will seek to respond to this latest ‘provocation’. The likelihood of violent reprisals against civilians are high.