In a roadside cafe a few hundred yards from the US consulate in Karachi, a dozen men are huddled around a TV screaming the latest headlines on the deteriorating ties between Pakistan and the US following the unexpected accusation by Adm. Mike Mullen Sunday.
Admiral Mullen accused Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, of aiding insurgents who attacked the US Embassy in Kabul on Sept. 13. In the cafe, an image of US Sen. Lindsay Graham flashes across the screen. Pakistan has to choose between the US and the Haqqani network, he warns.
The crowd has cause to worry, as most of the area’s residents have migrated here from North and South Waziristan in wake of US Army operations and drone attacks. Waziristan, they know, remains a flashpoint of the Pakistani-US acrimony.
“It’s a grave situation,” shouts elderly tribesman Hamza Mehsud in the cafe, while others nod their heads. “Our motherland has already been bleeding and now America plans to attack Waziristan. Over our dead body.”
His anger and indignation are representative of much of the population here. A decade-long tumultuous relationship between the two countries in the war against terrorism reached a new nadir after the killing of Osama bin Laden in a covert US raid in May, which many Pakistanis felt trampled their sovereignty. But the latest row has pushed relations to the lowest point so far, say analysts.
The low point came when American military official, and long time proponent of rebuilding US-Pakistani ties, Admiral Mullen made the announcement that many analysts take to mean a step up in US drone attacks in the Waziristan area, where the Haqqani network is believed to be based.
Pakistan's military chief, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani termed the accusations that Pakistan was supporting militants as "unfortunate" and not based on facts. Mr. Kayani added that singling out Pakistan was neither fair nor productive.
The issue of trust
Pakistan maintains that its 150,000 troops are busy in the tribal belt along the Afghanistan border. Pakistan wants to decide the timing of fresh assaults on its own. Pakistan’s military officials also say their troops recently faced cross-border attacks from Taliban militants who took shelter in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunnar and Nooristan provinces, complicating their work. Pakistan has lodged protest with the NATO forces and Karzai government.
“America needs to realize such confrontational allegations would lead the relationship toward a breakup and will send a wrong message to militants. It will increase America’s isolation in the battlefield on both sides of the border,” says Lahore-based defense analyst, Brigadier (retd.) Ghazanfar Ali.
A military offensive on Pakistan’s soil could potentially turn the tables for the worse, Mr. Ali says. “America cannot afford it because 70 percent of the supply line for NATO goes through Pakistan. Why would America want to lose its key ally? And Pakistan cannot afford hostilities with America.”
“There is trust deficit at strategic level,” Pakistan’s former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharaf told local TV channels. “American allegations are serious and we need to give it a thought whether we can afford to have confrontation, we need to look this economically and militarily, both. America needs Pakistan, its military, and ISI,” he said.
Pervez then added, “we need to talk to America like I used to.”
Pakistan’s military top commanders on Sunday held an emergency meeting and civilian leadership convened a rare all parties’ conference on Sept. 29, in Islamabad to consult major political and religious leaders.
Misconceptions and the way forward?
A major problem is that the narratives in both countries are based on misconceptions, say some analysts. The US narrative is that Pakistan is the reason for failure in Afghanistan, says Islamabad-based analyst Muhammad Amir Rana, director at independent think-tank Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). In Pakistan, meanwhile, there is a perception that America is not a reliable partner and colludes with Israel’s Mossad and India’s intelligence agency. “These misconceptions should not impact the strategic partnership, but America probably would want international community to pressure Pakistan before the Bonn Conference,” he says.
The Bonn conference is to be held in December to look back at the achievements in Afghanistan during the past decade and to formulate future action.
“I believe the relationship, which seems to be on the verge of collapse, will not collapse,” says Rana.
Back in a roadside café in Karachi, though, temperatures are running high. Many emotional tribesmen are willing to go back to Waziristan "to defend their motherland from American attack," they say. Meanwhile Javed Dawar, a local tribesman, quietly says, “Our lives have already been ruined. We have become wandering souls. We were facing militants with guns on ground and Americans were firing missiles from the air. My land is burning.”