The past week has been filled with announcements and speculations on how Osama bin Laden was killed and on Washington’s source of intelligence. After any operation of this sort, the world is filled with speculation on sources and methods by people who don’t know, and silence or dissembling by those who do.
Obfuscating on how intelligence was developed and on the specifics of how an operation was carried out is an essential part of covert operations. The precise process must be distorted to confuse opponents regarding how things actually played out; otherwise, the enemy learns lessons and adjusts. Ideally, the enemy learns the wrong lessons, and its adjustments wind up further weakening it. Operational disinformation is the final, critical phase of covert operations. So as interesting as it is to speculate on just how the United States located bin Laden and on exactly how the attack took place, it is ultimately not a fruitful discussion. Moreover, it does not focus on the truly important question, namely, the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations.
It is not inconceivable that Pakistan aided the United States in identifying and capturing Osama bin Laden, but it is unlikely. This is because the operation saw the already-tremendous tensions between the two countries worsen rather than improve. The Obama administration let it be known that it saw Pakistan as either incompetent or duplicitous and that it deliberately withheld plans for the operation from the Pakistanis. For their part, the Pakistanis made it clear that further operations of this sort on Pakistani territory could see an irreconcilable breach between the two countries. The attitudes of the governments profoundly affected the views of politicians and the public, attitudes that will be difficult to erase.
Posturing designed to hide Pakistani cooperation would be designed to cover operational details, not to lead to significant breaches between countries. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan ultimately is far more important than the details of how Osama bin Laden was captured, but both sides have created a tense atmosphere that they will find difficult to contain. One would not sacrifice strategic relationships for the sake of operational security. Therefore, we have to assume that the tension is real and revolves around the different goals of Pakistan and the United States.