Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan: Why Pakistanis may not be unconditionally enthusiastic about the killing of the al-Qaida leader.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 2 2011 7:45 PM

Conflict Zone

Why Pakistanis are not unconditionally enthusiastic about the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Also in Slate, William Saletan wants to know more about what happened in Abbottabad,  Daniel Byman analyzes the future of Al-Qaida, Anne Applebaum applauds America's use of human intelligence over expensive technologies, and John Dickerson notes the silence from those who criticized Obama's military tactics. And don't miss Christopher Hitchens' article on Bin Laden's legacy, or Dave Weigel's coverage on the scene outside the White House. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit The Slatest. Slate's complete coverage on the Osama Bin Laden assassination is rounded up here.

Osama Bin Laden's hide-out. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden's hide-out

When President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. forces in Abbottabad on Sunday, American crowds greeted the news with rapture. The response in Pakistan was a bit more complicated. Former President Pervez Musharraf called Bin Laden's death a "positive step" but also a violation of Pakistan's national sovereignty. Pakistanis on the ground are ambivalent. Hundreds gathered in Quetta to protest Bin Laden's killing.

It should come as no surprise that Pakistanis have mixed feelings about Bin Laden's death. A history of shifting alliances and perceived slights has left many of them skeptical about U.S. motives in their country—a skepticism that the Bin Laden operation could easily deepen.

Last month, I visited Pakistan with a group of American journalists. During an otherwise cordial meeting with students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, one student spoke up. Why, he asked, was Raymond Davis, the American CIA agent who shot two Pakistanis in the streets of Lahore in February, communicating with the Taliban, as evidenced by the call log on his cell phone when he was captured? Other students laughed nervously. Surely, the student continued, those phone numbers were evidence that Davis supported the Taliban. Davis's cell phone revealed a U.S. conspiracy to destabilize Pakistan and thus control its nuclear arsenal.

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That moment wasn't unusual. Over the course of a nine-day trip to Islamabad and Lahore, sponsored by the East-West Center, suspicion among everyone from students to politicians to economists to business leaders about the United States' role in Pakistan was the norm, not the exception.

It's no secret why. The word to describe the relationship between the United States and Pakistan these days seems to be "frenemies."

A simplified history of the relationship looks something like this: The decade or so after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 was a golden age for U.S.-Pakistan relations. The United States wanted to counterbalance the Soviet Union. Pakistan wanted to stymie India. The Soviet Union and India were friends. Therefore, Pakistan and the United States were friends.

In the 1960 and '70s, things got complicated. The United States cut off aid to both India and Pakistan once they started fighting over Kashmir in 1965—a move that Pakistanis saw as a betrayal. When India tested a nuclear weapon in 1974, Henry Kissinger's message to Pakistan was, essentially, "Tough." That wound stung anew in 1990, when the United States suspended aid again to punish Pakistan for developing its own nuclear technology.

As some Pakistanis look back, the '80s feel like the greatest back stab of all. President Reagan supported the regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who not only helped the U.S. fund the mujahedeen in Afghanistan but also imposed martial law and Islamic law in Pakistan—policies that came back to haunt the United States after 9/11. This period crystallized anti-American sentiments for a broad range of people: Those who disliked dictatorships, those who disliked "Islamicization," and those who simply resented U.S. hypocrisy.

The United States and Pakistan patched things up after 9/11, but only superficially and at the cost of America's professed democratic idealism. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized the presidency in 1999 in a bloodless coup, enjoyed the full support of the United States—despite his suppression of the press, the judiciary, and parliament—as long as he helped fight the war on terror. Of course, the friendship was in name only, as the Pakistani and American militaries—as well as their respective intelligence agencies—each suspected the other of double-dealing.

What makes the relationship so torrid today is the obvious power imbalance—and the dependency it fosters. The Pakistan military asks the CIA to cut back its activities, including drone strikes. But it also accepts a gift of 85 American drones. Most Pakistani military officials and politicians are quick to condemn drone attacks. But some think they're actually pretty effective.

Osama bin Laden Killed. Read more of Slate's coverage >>

In one meeting with businessmen at the Islamabad chamber of commerce, the chamber's president argued that if the United States wants to help Pakistan, it should leave. Another businessman argued that the United States needs to build a power plant in Pakistan as a symbol of friendship. Yet another urged the United States to let Pakistan construct the controversial oil pipeline to Iran and erect a giant American flag there as a symbol of American magnanimity—as if that would somehow fix America's image in Pakistan. None of them seemed conscious of the contradictions.

The overall impression was one of deep indecision. Pakistanis want help from the United States, but not if it has strings attached. They're grateful for foreign aid, but they also resent the dependence it creates. "Our [American] friends, while we thank them for helping us, should strongly encourage us to help ourselves," says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistani Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, a pro-democracy organization based in Islamabad.

Given the complex history, the United States can't expect unadulterated outpouring of gratitude for anything. Not even for killing Osama.

Video: Hillary Clinton comments on the death of Osama Bin Laden

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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