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Erik Voeten: How much did Pakistan know?

My friend and colleague, Erik Voeten posts:

Given that Osama Bin Laden was found relaxing in a posh resort town that happens to house the Pakistani military academy it isn’t much of a stretch for pundits and (foreign) government officials to suggest that the Pakistani military, intelligence services, and/or government officials were complicit in hiding him. I was talking about this with a Pakistani student of mine and we were both a bit skeptical that this is part of some widespread high-level plot. This is not based on any inside knowledge, just an assessment of the rationality of such a plot.

First, Bin Laden was a highly valued U.S. target with a $25 million bounty on his head. This should make Bin Laden exceptionally suspicious of involving too many people. The incentives for cheating are very high. The moment he outlives his utility to co-conspirators is the moment one would expect them to turn on him. You may keep a small, trusted group honest based on shared ideology/mission. Yet, in order to rise up the ranks in a place like Pakistan, you generally must exhibit a healthy degree of opportunism (Pakistan is one of the most corrupt countries on earth). Bin Laden doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would tie his fate to opportunistic government/intelligence officials. It does not seem like confidantes motivated by monetary gain tipped off investigators . Given the amount of time Bin Laden was living there, this seems unlikely if more than a handful of people knew about his whereabouts.

Second, Bin Laden’s approval rating in Pakistan was 18%. It likely plummeted considerably as Pakistanis started to suffer more from the terrorist attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, which have killed thousands of Pakistani in recent years (many in the area where Bin Laden was found). This only increased incentives for officials to capture Bin Laden or tip off the Americans if they knew where he was. The backlash would likely be minimal and the rewards quite high.

Third, there have been large personnel changes in the Pakistani military, government, and intelligence services in recent years, especially at the top. Somehow, Bin Laden’s protection must have survived these changes.

Fourth, my student points out that these compounds are actually fairly common in Pakistan and became more common at exactly the time this one was constructed. Pakistan experienced somewhat of a construction boom in the early and mid-2000s.  For someone with money, it would not be that hard to build a compound like this. When you think about it, the place where you least expect it is often the best place to hide.

What strikes me as more likely is that Bin-Laden’s aides bought off local officials to look the other way. The locals probably could have guessed that something suspicious was going on in the compound but probably did not realize Bin-Laden was there. My uninformed sense of this is that the big issue for the Pakistani government is that it shows how little control they have over the security situation in their own country. However, I doubt that this was part of a massive  high-level conspiracy. Obviously, I am willing to be proven wrong on this, as it is a hunch at best.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.