Reading the news today, it's difficult to determine exactly what role Pakistan played in the U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday at a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both stated that counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan "helped lead us to bin Laden," while Homeland Security official John Brennan insisted at a press conference today that the U.S. conducted the raid on its own and only informed Pakistan of the operation when its helicopters left Pakistani air space. The U.S. position, while perhaps a bit vague, has been consistent.

Pakistan, however, seems to be sending mixed signals about the role it played in the raid.

  • The raid only involved U.S. forces: In a statement this morning, Pakistan's foreign ministry stated that the "operation was conducted by the U.S. Forces in accordance with declared U.S. policy that Osama bin Laden will be eliminated in a direct action by the U.S. Forces, wherever found in the world."
  • Pakistani troops supported U.S forces: Al Jazeera Arabic is quoting an anonymous Pakistani intelligence official as saying Pakistani troops supported U.S. forces during the mission, and Reuters is quoting Pakistan's ambassador to Britain as saying the operation involved the U.S. and Pakistan.
  • Pakistani troops killed bin Laden: Pakistani television, moreover, is reporting per intelligence officials that bin Laden was killed by Pakistani forces, according to China's Xinhua news agency.
  • Pakistan only contributed intelligence: An unnamed Pakistani intelligence official is telling CNN that the Pakistanis gave the U.S. raw phone-tap data that contributed to bin Laden's killing but didn't analyze or interpret the information themselves, and that intelligence "slipped from" Pakistan's "radar" for months.

Why does getting to the bottom of this diplomatic debate matter? First and foremost, it would provide insight into how much Pakistan knew about bin Laden's whereabouts and whether, as Indian and Afghan officials are charging today, Pakistan is deliberately sheltering terrorists even as it claims to be America's partner in its fight against terror. U.S. officials claim that Pakistan was as surprised as they were to learn bin Laden was living close to the capital, Islamabad, and near a prominent Pakistani military academy, but a number of analysts are scoffing at that idea and suggesting instead that Pakistan was protecting bin Laden. Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks explains that "suspicious minds" are asking why the Pakistanis gave bin Laden up and what they got in return, while The New Yorker's Steve Coll writes that the initial evidence suggests "bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control."

At a time when U.S.-Pakistani relations are strained over U.S. drone strikes and CIA operations against militants in the country, Pakistan's struggles to crack down on al Qaeda and its affiliates, and America's future influence in Afghanistan, The New Yorker's Lawrence Wright says figuring out Pakistan's role in the bin Laden operation is critical for charting future relations (the photo above shows Obama meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari:

If it is true that Pakistani intelligence was helpful in locating bin Laden, and kept that matter secret, then we can begin to sort out our fraught relationship with that troubled country on a more equitable, trusting basis. If that turns out not to be the case, then there will be a dreadful reckoning to come.