Pakistan: We're scapegoats for US frustration over Afghan war

Pakistan's prime minister warned Tuesday that if the US didn't stop lobbing accusations at Pakistan, it would be difficult to tamp down anti-American sentiment in his country.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters
Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani speaks during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Islamabad, Tuesday. Gilani warned the United States to stop accusing Pakistan of playing a double game with Islamist militants, and said Washington must correct a perceived tilt towards arch-foe India.

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A top Pakistani official has warned that public anger toward the US is getting beyond the government's control, and blamed the recent spike in tensions on a US administration increasingly anxious to fulfill its mission in Afghanistan ahead of a planned 2014 withdrawal.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told Reuters yesterday that a top US military official's accusation of Pakistani government complicity in terrorist activity was increasing anti-American sentiment – already on the rise after the controversial Navy Seals raid on Osama bin Laden's compound this spring.

"The negative messaging, naturally that is disturbing my people," Gilani said in the interview. "If there is messaging that is not appropriate to our friendship, then naturally it is extremely difficult to convince my public. Therefore they [the US] should be sending positive messages."

… Gilani said Washington should provide the "political space" for his government to convince a skeptical Pakistani public of the value of a relationship with the United States.

The outgoing US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said last week that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. He accused Pakistan of directly supporting the militant group, which carried out a brazen attack on the US Embassy in Kabul earlier this month.

While Prime Minister Gilani blamed Washington's stepped-up accusations on frustration with the Afghanistan war, US officials say it has more to do with Pakistan's increasing use of groups like the Haqqani network as proxies in Afghanistan, CBS reported last week.

Many Pakistanis are concerned that Mr. Mullen's comments are a preface to increased drone strikes and other unilateral actions on Pakistani soil, The Christian Science Monitor reports from Karachi, Pakistan. “It’s a grave situation,” said an elderly tribesman watching television coverage of the blowback from Mullen's comments. “Our motherland has already been bleeding and now America plans to attack Waziristan. Over our dead body.”

Such angry responses have prompted Pakistani officials to caution the US to tread carefully. Some in Washington have sought to play down Mullen's comments, given in a hearing before the Senate Armed Forces Committee.

A Pentagon official told the Washington Post that Mullen's comments were "overstated and contributed to overheated reactions in Pakistan and misperceptions in Washington." The most that intelligence indicates, he said, is that Pakistan "treads a delicate if duplicitous line, providing support to insurgent groups including the Haqqani network but avoiding actions that would provoke a US response" – such as this month's attack on the US Embassy in Kabul.

The internal criticism by the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to challenge Mullen openly, reflects concern over the accuracy of Mullen’s characterizations at a time when Obama administration officials have been frustrated in their efforts to persuade Pakistan to break its ties to Afghan insurgent groups.

US military officials have hedged Mullen's statement, saying that his accusations could be interpreted many ways and that the problem lies not in the statement itself but in how some US lawmakers and Pakistani officials interpreted it. The US has long accused Pakistan of allowing the Haqqani network to operate relatively freely in the border region and providing support for the group, but Mullen took the allegation a step farther by saying the group acts as a "veritable arm" of the ISI – a characterization that fails to take into consideration cultural and regional norms, one official told the Post.

That interpretation might be valid “if we were judging by Western standards,” said a senior U.S. military official who defended Mullen’s testimony. But the Pakistanis “use extremist groups — not only the Haqqanis — as proxies and hedges” to maintain influence in Afghanistan.

“This is not new,” the official said. “Can they control them like a military unit? We don’t think so. Do they encourage them? Yes. Do they provide some finance for them? Yes. Do they provide safe havens? Yes.”

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