ISLAMABAD — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that Pakistani officials had conceded that al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden must have had a support network in Pakistan to have remained undetected for at least five years in the city of Abbottabad, home to the country's premier military academy.
But she stepped back from suggestions, made in Washington in the days after the U.S. special forces raid May 2 that killed bin Laden, that the Pakistani military or government knew the al Qaida chief was hiding here.
"There is absolutely no evidence that anyone at the highest levels in the Pakistani government" knew of bin Laden's presence," she said. She added, however, that she'd discussed the likelihood that bin Laden had received help with Pakistani officials.
"Our counterparts in the government were very forthcoming in saying that somebody somewhere was providing some kind of support, and they are carrying out an investigation," she said.
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Clinton made the comments during a news conference in Islamabad, where she also warned that U.S.-Pakistani relations have reached a "turning point" after bin Laden's death and that Pakistan now must take "decisive steps" against extremists in the country.
Clinton also called on Pakistan to put aside anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories that create "deliberate misunderstandings," a reference to U.S. suspicions that Pakistan's military is largely behind the anti-American cast of much of the Pakistani news media.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Clinton's visit would succeed in improving ties between the United States and Pakistan, whose cooperation is considered vital to battling al Qaida and stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan.
Ahead of Clinton's visit, Pakistan moved to ease tensions by returning the wreckage of a high-tech helicopter that crashed in the raid on bin Laden's house and agreed to give the CIA access to the al Qaida leader's compound. But the country is pressing ahead with cutting the number of American military trainers it allows to work with its armed forces, Clinton confirmed, and some U.S. officials think that the relationship will be more limited in future.
Clinton didn't detail what was said during four hours of talks that she and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held with Pakistani civilian and military officials, but she said Pakistan had agreed to take some "very specific actions" for the short term.
"We have reached a turning point. Osama bin Laden is dead, but al Qaida and its syndicate of terror remain a serious threat to us both," Clinton said.
Clinton said her conversations included detailed discussions of ways to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al Qaida. Many observers speculate that in the wake of bin Laden's death, the United States is pressing Pakistan to arrest or kill al Qaida deputy leader Ayman al Zawahiri and other senior al Qaida figures who are thought to be in Pakistan, as well as the leadership of the Afghan insurgency, including Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"We will do our bit, and we look to the government of Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead," Clinton said. "Joint action against al Qaida and its affiliates will make Pakistan, America and the world safe. Pakistan has a responsibility to help us help Afghanistan, by preventing insurgents from waging war from Pakistani territory."
Clinton also made clear that the United States has lost patience with the runaway anti-American discourse in Pakistan, much of which appears in newspapers or on television channels that are thought to have ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency.
"Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear," Clinton said. "Let's not be misinterpreting and misrepresenting each other. Then we can never, ever find common ground."
According to U.S. officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't allowed to discuss the issue with reporters, the "public discourse" in Pakistan was one of the four major topics that Clinton raised in the talks.
Wild conspiracy theories that suggest the United States is trying to destroy Pakistan or seize its nuclear weapons often dominate the news media and comments from the country's leadership, coloring public opinion. Recent polling found that a majority of Pakistanis believe that they're suffering from terrorism because they're being forced to fight "America's war."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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