WASHINGTON – Pakistan has already paid dearly for its failure to know or acknowledge that Osama bin Laden was hiding for more than five years in a compound a short distance from a Pakistani military facility, Pentagon leaders insisted Wednesday.
Pushing back against angry public and congressional accusations that Pakistani officials were complicit in bin Laden's sanctuary there, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he's seen proof that leaders there were unaware of bin Laden's whereabouts.
"I have seen no evidence at all that the senior leadership knew. In fact, I've seen some evidence to the contrary," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. "We have no evidence yet with respect to anybody else. My supposition is, somebody knew."
He wouldn't say who, but suggested it could have been retired or low-level Pakistani officials.
The Obama administration is reassessing its fragile and sometimes hostile relationship with Pakistan after the bin Laden killing, which may change the stakes for both sides. For the U.S., it may provide greater leverage in its argument to prod Pakistan to go after the militants that target the U.S., instead of only those that target Pakistan.
For Pakistan, outrage and shame over what is seen as a breach of national sovereignty will color leaders' willingness to cooperate with the U.S.
Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen issued a broad defense of Islamabad's leadership Wednesday. And they urged patience as the "humiliated" country worked through the problems emanating from the U.S. clandestine raid deep into Pakistan that killed bin Laden on May 2.
"If I were in Pakistani shoes, I would say I've already paid a price. I've been humiliated. I've been shown that the Americans can come in here and do this with impunity," said Gates. "I think we have to recognize that they see a cost in that and a price that has been paid."
That argument, however, may hold no sway on Capitol Hill, which has seen more than $10 billion in aid go to Pakistan over the past 10 years.
If a U.S. aid package to Pakistan came up for a vote in at least one Senate Appropriations subcommittee, "it would not pass at all. I don't know how I would vote on the issue," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid.
The comments came as the Pakistani Taliban vowed to fight with "new zeal" in the wake of bin Laden's death to complete the al-Qaida chief's mission of waging holy war against the West, the deputy commander of the militant group told The Associated Press.
Waliur Rehman's remarks appeared designed to deflate expectations that bin Laden's death would slow down insurgent groups allied with or inspired by al-Qaida. And it also could be an attempt to boost morale among the insurgents who are facing a tough fight against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Gates and Mullen said the Pakistanis are well aware of the swelling frustration in Washington. And they've heard the demands that Islamabad pay a price for its inability or unwillingness to more aggressively target insurgents that are planning and waging attacks against U.S. and coalition troops across the border in Afghanistan.
"I don't think we should underestimate the humbling experience that this (has been) and in fact the internal soul searching that's going on" inside Pakistan's military, said Mullen.
Mullen has forged a close relationship with his Pakistani counterparts, encouraging them to move against high-level terrorists known to be hiding in Pakistan, including al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and kingpins of the Afghan insurgency such as Mullah Omar and Siraj Haqqani.
Pakistan's continued support is critical for the continued passage of supplies into Afghanistan, as well as its sporadic military operations in some of the insurgent strongholds such as South Waziristan and the Swat Valley.
Mullen said the U.S. must continue to work with and provide aid to Pakistan. But, amid rising anger and distrust of Pakistan across America and on Capitol Hill, both men acknowledged that Islamabad must take concrete action to eliminate the safe havens where militants are hiding along the border with Afghanistan.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said as lawmakers are under pressure to cut all U.S. spending, he suggested establishing a "set of benchmarks" for Pakistan to meet, such as going after the Haqqani network, border security and focusing on North Waziristan.
While he cautioned against a rush to cut aid to Pakistan, he noted that the U.S. set similar types of benchmarks as it prepared to withdraw troops from Iraq.
In other comments, both Gates and Mullen complained that too much information has been disclosed about the raid by the elite U.S. SEAL team that stormed the compound in Abbottabad and killed bin Laden and four others.
"We are close to jeopardizing this precious capability that we have, and we can't afford to do that," said Mullen. "This fight isn't over."
He and Gates said that former and current U.S. officials have spilled too many details of the operation, risking the security of the special operations forces involved and their families. "It's time to stop talking," he said.
In a separate development Wednesday, a new report by the Asia Society said that the U.S. and other allies must make a long-term commitment to Pakistan in order to prevent the country from further deterioration. It called for assistance to improve the country's failing education system, reform its weak judicial system and end its conflict with India.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.