WASHINGTON — Even if it's found that Pakistani officials helped hide Osama bin Laden, there are unlikely to be serious consequences because the government is too weak and the United States has bigger priorities, such as ending the Afghan war and helping to stabilize poor, terrorism-plagued Pakistan, which has the world's fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.
"At the end of the day, a relationship with Pakistan is critical," said a U.S. official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Wherever this goes, we have to find some way to get along with the Pakistanis."
Both countries are investigating possible collusion by Pakistani military or intelligence officials in keeping bin Laden hidden for up to five years in the compound where he was killed May 2 by U.S. Navy SEALs outside Abbottabad, a city packed with army facilities and military officers 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
Evidence of official Pakistani complicity could pose a serious dilemma for President Barack Obama, as he strives to find a settlement to the Afghan war and withdraw some 100,000 U.S. forces fighting Taliban-led insurgents based in Pakistan's rugged tribal area and in its southwestern Baluchistan province.
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"It remains very much in the interests of the American people that we maintain a cooperative relationship with Pakistan," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "It is vital to our national security interests."
However, if investigators find evidence of official Pakistani collusion with bin Laden, Obama could come under considerable pressure from lawmakers of both parties to slash the billions of dollars in annual U.S. aid to Pakistan unless the individuals implicated are prosecuted, experts said. Many lawmakers were already frustrated by Pakistan's refusal to close Afghan insurgent bases in its tribal area.
But cutting aid could jeopardize any chance of repairing relations that were already seriously damaged before bin Laden's death, experts said.
"You risk undermining the whole edifice that the United States has been trying to support in Pakistan," warned Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, an independent policy institute.
Moreover, the U.S. aid lies at the heart of Obama's strategy to help stabilize a deeply impoverished country of 170 million struggling with a growing Islamic insurgency, soaring ethnic and sectarian tensions, mounting joblessness and failing education, health, energy and other services.
U.S. officials are deeply concerned that the increasing insecurity could put at risk the country's nuclear arsenal, which is growing faster than any other in the world as the Pakistani military strives to compensate for rival India's overwhelming conventional military superiority. With so much at stake, the Obama administration has made it clear that it is unwilling to put relations with Pakistan at risk.
In an indication that the administration might not make public evidence that shows official Pakistani complicity, Carney said, "We won't share classified intelligence information."
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Oh., said Wednesday that from the information he'd seen to date, "we can't conclusively say that somebody senior knew and promoted safe haven."
But, he added, "Clearly there may have been elements that knew and looked the other way" and "clearly (bin Laden) had a logistics network. Who knew, and what they knew, is something we're asking lots of questions about."
Pakistan's former dictator, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, told ABC News in an interview that a low-level "rogue element" in the pervasive security establishment may have known about the presence in Abbottabad of the world's most wanted terrorist.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, who is to visit Pakistan next week and is regarded as an unofficial administration envoy, is expected to use bin Laden's discovery in Pakistan to press the highly humiliated Pakistani military into moving against the Afghan Taliban and allied groups, such as the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan.
Pakistani military officials have said that their forces are too overstretched to pursue those groups, and that their leaders must be included in any Afghanistan peace settlement.
But U.S. officials contend that the Pakistani army and the military-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, are secretly supporting those groups as part of a goal of putting a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul that would minimize India's influence.
"I believe this opportunity (of bin Laden's death) now allows us to . . . urge them to see the ways in which their interests really are not where they have perceived them to be and hopefully there can be a readjustment," Kerry said May 8 on CBS. "If there isn't, then we're going to have to sort of decide how we meet the interests we have to the best degree possible, not raise the expectations on other things and kind of muddle along."
There is scant chance that Pakistan's civilian authorities can — or would — do anything should army or ISI officials be implicated in bin Laden's harboring.
The ruling coalition, led by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, is weak and riddled by infighting and indecision. It's been unable to assert control over the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 64 years of independence and exercises near-total control over national security policies.
Instead of harnessing the humiliation suffered by the military and ISI from bin Laden's killing, the government defended the military against recriminations over the raid by U.S. commandos, who slipped under the country's air defenses and spent more than 40 minutes on the ground in the Abbottabad compound.
"The politicians have been clamoring with each other to help the military out of this. That's because they want to earn favors that they can call in when the time arises," said Simbal Khan, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, a research center in Islamabad financed by the government.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday rejected an inquiry by a three-star general that was announced a day earlier by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and called for an independent investigation led by the chief justice, saying the official probe was "powerless."
"Those Pakistani (intelligence) agencies that constantly play political games did not know Osama bin Laden was right under their noses?" Sharif said at a news conference in Islamabad.
The combined intelligence and air defense failure has been described as the military's greatest disgrace since 1971, when it fought and lost a war to keep the eastern half of the country, which became Bangladesh.
(Special correspondent Shah reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.)