The United States hunted down al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad at a time when Pakistan's leaders were not sure if he was alive or dead, and if alive whether he was in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Going by the public statements and private conversations of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's intelligence agencies could not have been of much help to the Special Forces in carrying out the operation against the al-Qaeda fugitive.

Mr. Zardari had on more than one occasion in 2009 said it appeared that bin Laden was dead, and Mr. Gilani had told United States Senators in 2008, according to an Islamabad Embassy cable, that America's most wanted man was not in Pakistan. The Pakistan cables were accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks.

Unlike former President Pervez Musharraf, who was convinced that bin Laden was in Pakistan, Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani, while offering all help to the United States' Global War on Terror, did not seem confident that the al-Qaeda leader could be found in Pakistan.

Actually, Mr. Zardari went so far as to say publicly in April 2009 that bin Laden could be dead, pointing out that Pakistan's intelligence thought that the al-Qaeda leader did not exist any more. “The Americans tell me they don't know, and they are much more equipped than us to trace him. And our own intelligence agencies obviously think that he does not exist any more, that he is dead,” he had told reporters. In an interview to the BBC in September 2009, he said it seemed that bin Laden was no longer alive.

Likewise, when U.S. Senator Carl Levin asked Mr. Gilani during a May 25, 2008 meeting if the Government of Pakistan had any information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the Prime Minister answered in the negative. A cable dated June 5, 2008 (156951: confidential) on the meeting with Mr. Levin and another Senator Robert Casey recalled that Mr. Gilani referred the question to Defence Secretary Kamran Rasool, who reminded the senators that the U.S. had photographed a man who it thought might be bin Laden and asked Pakistan to capture him. “Pakistani forces had followed suit, but the man was not bin Laden. The point, noted Rasool, was that Pakistan had acted swiftly and successfully when given the information by the U.S.”

In contrast, Mr. Musharraf readily acknowledged to the United States that bin Laden might be in Pakistan. According to a U.S. Embassy cable, Mr. Musharraf told Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, during a meeting with a Congressional delegation on January 27, 2007, that Osama bin Laden might be in the Frontier region of Pakistan.

The cable, dated January 31, 2007 (94672: confidential), sent in the name of U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan C. Crocker, reported the conversation during the meeting: “Speaker Pelosi asked the President whether he knew the whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Musharraf replied that Mullah Omar and the Taliban movement emerged from Kandahar, where he presumably remains. ‘I do not believe Omar has ever been to Pakistan,' Musharraf said, contrasting this to al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Ladin and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who may be ensconced in the mountains along the Frontier. Musharraf proceeded to describe Pakistani efforts to locate and apprehend other al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban commanders, including Afghans Mullah Dadullah Lang and Jalaluddin Haqqani and Pakistani Baitullah Mehsud; these leaders, Musharraf said, come and go from Pakistan, where they recruit and motivate militants.”

Another cable, dated April 6, 2007 (103492: secret, noforn), which reported on a conversation between Mr. Musharraf and Congressman John Tierney on April 3, 2007, said the Pakistan President acknowledged that the Taliban was active on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and that al-Qaeda was operating in North and South Waziristan and in Bajaur. “The President explained that the population of the Waziristans was less than one percent of the entire population of Pakistan, and that the Waziristans were the most remote part of the country. He also noted that Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden were probably in a remote area of Bajaur or across the border in Afghanistan staying with Hekmatyar sympathizers. Several times during the meeting, Musharraf stressed his commitment to working with the U.S. to find both men.”

This report has been corrected for a factual error that mentioned the Pakistan Defence Secretary Kamran Rasool as Defence Minister