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By Myra MacDonald
LONDON (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama telephoned Pakistan's president to tell him U.S. forces had found and killed Osama bin Laden, he offered him a choice.
Pakistan could say it had helped find bin Laden or that it knew nothing. President Asif Ali Zardari chose the former.
The exchange, recounted by a senior Western official briefed on the May 2 raid in the town of Abbottabad, illustrates the sometimes deliberate confusion over how far Pakistan is co-operating with the United States in fighting Islamist militants.
Unwilling to be seen as working too closely with a country which is deeply unpopular at home, Pakistan veers uncomfortably between trying to claim credit overseas while reassuring domestic critics it has not sold out to the United States.
Those two irreconcilable public positions, combined with a real and deep underlying distrust between Pakistan and the United States, mean that three weeks after bin Laden was killed, almost nobody knows for sure exactly what happened and why.
They may also be creating such strains within Pakistan that it is becoming harder to contain militants who on Sunday were able to overrun its naval aviation base in the city of Karachi.
After telephoning Zardari, Obama announced bin Laden's death in a televised address and added that "it's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding."
A Pakistani official, asked about the exchange between Obama and Zardari, said Pakistan's military leadership had also been on board initially in saying they had helped find bin Laden -- a position reflected in early public and private statements.
But with emotions running high in both the United States and Pakistan, that early emphasis on cooperation disintegrated.
In Washington, CIA director Leon Panetta insisted the United States had acted alone because it did not trust Pakistan.
And in Pakistan, the second official said, the military leadership backed off its initial position after feedback from garrisons highlighted deep anger in the ranks about the breach of sovereignty involved in the U.S. helicopter raid.
Worried about a backlash from Islamist militants if it were seen to have helped the United States find and kill bin Laden, and insulted by Panetta's comments, Pakistan hit back.
Its political and military leadership, which official sources say initially welcomed bin Laden's death, began instead to criticise the United States.
Pakistan's parliament condemned the violation of sovereignty and called for an end to strikes by U.S. Predator drones in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Yet those drone strikes -- which have continued despite the parliament resolution -- illustrate the same problem Pakistan faced in its response to the U.S. raid which killed bin Laden.
Publicly condemned as a breach of sovereignty, they are privately condoned -- provided, officials say, the targets are chosen in coordination with Pakistan.
Washington says it has no evidence Pakistan's leadership knew he was in Abbottabad, though his presence in a garrison town not far from the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) has raised suspicions he had help from inside the security establishment.
And events of the past decade have provided plenty of cause for strains within the military and intelligence services, despite regular purges since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Former president, Pervez Musharraf, who left office in 2008, worked closely with the United States in tackling al Qaeda.
Himself the target of al Qaeda linked assassination attempts in 2003, he brought in General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, now army chief, to dismantle the network and arrest the ringleaders. That effort culminated in the arrest of Abu Faraj al Libbi in 2005. It was a high point in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
But things changed after that, though the impact of those changes -- which preceded the time bin Laden was reported to have moved to Abbottabad five years ago -- remains unclear.
Shortly after Libbi was arrested Musharraf began to declare that Pakistan had broken the back of al Qaeda.
According to Pakistan's version of events, it continued to pass on leads on al Qaeda to the Americans, including details of Arabic-language phone calls which were then used by the CIA to help track down bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad.
But after 2005 it no longer gave it the same priority. It has since defended its failure to find bin Laden in part on the grounds that he no longer constituted a major threat.
"We had already killed all his allies and so we had killed him even before he was dead. He was living like a dead man," Pakistan's spy chief, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, told parliament, according to comments relayed by Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan.
NUCLEAR DEAL AND LONDON BOMBINGS
The apparent shift in attitude towards al Qaeda, however, was not the only change that took place around that time.
In July 2005, the United States and India agreed to work together on a nuclear deal which would eventually give New Delhi de facto recognition as a nuclear-armed power. Pakistan, the favoured U.S. ally, was left out after its nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, was accused of selling nuclear secrets abroad.
Shortly afterwards, Washington began to complain about a resurgence in Afghanistan of the Taliban movement which it said was being run from safe havens in Pakistan. Meanwhile Pakistan objected to growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Many Afghan analysts and Pakistani officials blame the resurgence of the Taliban on the U.S. failure to stabilise Afghanistan, in part because it was distracted by war in Iraq.
But U.S. officials also accused Pakistan of playing a "double game", supporting some militants to extend its influence in Afghanistan and counter India, while targeting others.
Was Pakistan, believing it had neutralised bin Laden, holding on to him as a bargaining chip with the United States? Officials deny this, insisting they did not know where he was.
The July 7, 2005 London transport bombings which killed 52 people complicated the picture further. Three of the four suicide bombers were of Pakistani descent.
After that, Pakistan came under intense but discreet diplomatic pressure to curb Kashmir-focused militant groups based in its Punjab province, for fear they might try to use British Pakistanis to plot attacks on the West.
Pakistan stepped up intelligence cooperation with the West, notably helping to thwart a 2006 plot to use liquid bombs on planes from Britain to the United States. That plot was linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammad group which once fought in Kashmir.
But the many Islamist militants in Pakistan were becoming increasingly hard to manage.
A military assault in 2007 on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad -- where militants along with many others from the tribal areas were holed up -- fuelled a full-scale rebellion by what became known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The curbs on the Punjab-based militant groups -- in part because of Western pressure, in part because of a peace process then underway with India -- created their own strains.
The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), blamed by India and the United States for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai which killed 166 people, was chafing at the bit as it lost relevance and some of its members drifted off to fight in Afghanistan.
"I understand this compelled the LeT to consider a spectacular terrorist strike in India," an Indian government report quoted David Headley, an American arrested in Chicago for carrying out surveillance for the Mumbai attack, as saying.
Perhaps significantly, the Indian report quoted Headley as talking of the involvement of officers from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in plotting the Mumbai attack, though it gave no indication that the leadership was involved.
Had they gone rogue, angered by Musharraf's apparent abandonment of the Kashmir cause?
Pakistani officials reject suggestions "rogue" ISI officers were involved in Mumbai, saying that the organisation -- staffed heavily by military officers -- is a disciplined force.
But there's the rub -- and one that applies both to the Mumbai attack and to the discovery of bin Laden in Abbottabad.
Pakistan dare not admit -- even, or especially, to the United States -- that ISI officers might be undisciplined enough to act against the orders of the military leadership.
The army projects itself as the most reliable institution on the country and guardian of Pakistan's territorial integrity.
Yet by insisting there are no rogue officers, it runs the risk of reviving questions about what the leadership knew.
For now, the military has pleaded ignorance of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, settling for the embarrassment of being accused of incompetence rather than of complicity.
But after a string of bomb and gun attacks -- the latest on the naval aviation base in Karachi -- another question is being asked of the military leadership.
After so many years of running an ambiguous policy that even the most well-informed Pakistanis find hard to understand, how sure is that its deliberate confusion is not also confusing those in its own ranks? In other words, how sure can it be that militants, bin Laden included, did not have inside help?
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad and Simon Cameron-Moore in Istanbul; Editing by Jon Hemming)
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