For more information, see the Archive's Osama Bin Laden File
Washington, D.C., May 5, 2011 - As the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, raises fresh questions about U.S.-Pakistan relations, newly released documents show that as early as 1998 U.S. officials concluded the Government of Pakistan "is not disposed to be especially helpful on the matter of terrorist Usama bin Ladin." According to previously secret U.S. documents, Pakistani officials repeatedly refused to act on the Bin Laden problem, despite mounting pressure from American authorities. Instead, in the words of a U.S. Embassy cable, Pakistani sources "all took the line that the issue of bin Ladin is a problem the U.S. has with the Taliban, not with Pakistan."
The documents in this compilation – part of the National Security Archive's developing Osama Bin Laden File – were obtained by the Archive through the Freedom of Information Act. They reveal a history of "disappointment that Pakistan … a good friend of the U.S., was not taking steps to help with Usama bin Ladin (UBL.)"
As an ally to both the Taliban and the United States, Pakistan was balancing conflicting policies towards the Bin Laden question. Islamabad continued to support the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, an organization protecting the al-Qaeda leader, while simultaneously promising U.S. leaders it was "taking the bin Laden matter very seriously," and would cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Portending momentous events to come, U.S. officials in 1998 lamented that getting Pakistani help in apprehending bin Laden would be "an uphill slog."
Read the Documents
Document 1 – Information Memorandum – August 21, 1998
To the Secretary of State from Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth, "Pakistan: Reaction to Afghanistan Strikes," August 21, 1998, U.S. Department of State, Confidential, 3 pp. [Excised]
The day after U.S. missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in response to al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. President Bill Clinton calls Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif. Despite the "cordial" nature of their conversation, a senior State Department official reports that Islamabad has "decided to take a hard line against the strikes." Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth states that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry has called American officials to "protest the illegality of the U.S. action," and adds that he does "not expect the negative Pakistani reaction to subside." According to Inderfurth's memo, the Sharif government "operates in an environment dominated by conspiracy theories and paranoia," and remains unlikely to defend Washington. The reason for Islamabad's lack of support for U.S. actions may be rooted in the complexity of Pakistani politics, according to the memo. Embassy personnel believe the Sharif government cannot condemn bin Laden without alienating key social and political groups in Pakistan, noting that, "The most sincere reaction of the government of Pakistan to the Bin Laden strikes is exasperation at the unneeded difficulties this event has created for them in dealing with their domestic political situation, and in particular, in keeping the religious parties happy and relatively off the street."
Document 2 – [November 1998]
Talking Points, Undated [Likely November 1998], U.S. Department of State, Secret/NODIS, 2 pp. [Excised]
According to this set of State Department talking points, U.S. officials "have exerted diplomatic pressure on the Taliban directly and through the Pakistanis to expel Bin Laden to a country where he will be brought to justice for his actions, but these diplomatic efforts have not yet been successful." The bin Laden issue will be pushed further at an upcoming high-level meeting between U.S. President Clinton and Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif on December 2, 1998. Despite increasing U.S. pressure, the Taliban are unwilling to surrender bin Laden, according to the document, in part due to "UBL's close ties to key Taliban leaders, including Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar," while Pakistan has similarly not been supportive of U.S. efforts to neutralize bin Laden. The memo concludes that "time for a diplomatic solution may be running out."
Document 3 - Islamabad 09215
U.S. Embassy (Islamabad), Cable, "Usama bin Ladin: Pakistan Seems to Be Leaning Against Being Helpful," December 18, 1998, Secret, 4 pp. [Excised]
Following a meeting between U.S. President Clinton and Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif in Washington on December 2, 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad is getting the clear impression the Government of Pakistan "is not disposed to be especially helpful on the matter of terrorist Usama bin Ladin." In a cable to the State Department, Embassy officials report that various Pakistani sources "all took the line that the issue of bin Ladin is a problem the U.S. has with the Taliban, not with Pakistan." Islamabad is loath to involve itself in America's campaign to get bin Laden. Citing a December 18 news article by a journalist with connections to Pakistani intelligence, the cable notes that the opinion expressed in the article that Pakistan does "not want to have anything to do with Washington's anti-Osama crusade" reflects the general opinion of Pakistani officials at that time. The embassy says it will continue to try to convince Pakistan to help in the pursuit for bin Laden but adds that "it's an uphill slog."
Document 4 - Islamabad 00138
U.S. Embassy (Islamabad), Cable, "Ambassador Reviews Again GOP [Government of Pakistan] Policy on Afghanistan," January 7, 1999, Secret, 9 pp. [Excised]
This heavily excised document discusses a meeting between U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan William Milam and Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz. Amid increasing concerns regarding Osama bin Laden, the U.S. "urged the GOP [Government of Pakistan] to get active in trying to convince the Taliban to expel terrorist Usama bin Ladin" and to change its pro-Taliban policies. The Ambassador notes that "Aziz listened carefully, but his response contained little that was new."
Document 5 - Islamabad 04254
U.S. Embassy (Islamabad), Cable, "Usama bin Ladin: U.S. Points Delivered to Taliban and Pakistani Government," May 29, 1999, Secret, 4 pp.
As Taliban "chargé d'affaires" Syedur Rahman Haqqani describes Osama bin Laden as a "bomb" waiting to explode, U.S. government officials grow increasingly frustrated with Pakistani and Taliban officials who have little to offer on the issue of Osama bin Laden. Although both Taliban and Pakistani authorities are reportedly courteous to U.S. diplomats, the embassy expects little, if any, action to result. The Pakistani government reiterated that it "was taking the bin Laden matter very seriously," while admitting that officials are in fact "preoccupied" with a very different issue – "the recent increase in Indo-Pakistani tensions over Kashmir."
Document 6 - State 221643
U.S. Department of State, Cable, "U/S Pickering Discusses Afghanistan, Democratization and Kashmir in NY with [Excised]," November 20, 2000, Confidential, 5 pp. [Excised]
Less than a year before September 11, 2001, U.S. Under Secretaryof State Thomas Pickering meets with Pakistani officials to press Islamabad on the bin Laden question. Pickering "opened the meeting by expressing disappointment that Pakistan, whom he called a good friend of the U.S., was not taking steps to help with Usama bin Ladin (UBL)."
Underscoring the discrepancy between what Taliban officials say and do, Pickering rejects Pakistan's oft-repeated claims that "engagement was the only way to change the Taliban's behavior." The U.S., he says, is going to pursueharsher measures, including sanctions. America "would always act to protect U.S. interests at a time and place of its own choice," he adds. In the coming months, Islamabad would continue to defend the Taliban regime, but due to the increasing violence associated with al-Qaeda's anti-American activities, the U.S. had very little faith in Taliban claims that bin Laden posed no threat.