REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani officials warned they could jettison the United States as an ally if American officials continue to accuse Islamabad's intelligence agency of assisting a leading Afghan Taliban group in recent attacks in Afghanistan.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar cautioned the U.S. against airing allegations such as the blunt charge of collusion between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the militant Haqqani network made Thursday by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"You cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, you cannot afford to alienate the Pakistani people," Khar said, speaking to a Pakistani television channel in New York.
Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in a statement called Mullen's remarks "very unfortunate and not based on facts."
Pakistani officials for the second day tersely rejected the allegations and challenged the U.S. to furnish evidence of ties between the country's intelligence community and the Haqqani group.
Mullen called the Haqqani group "a veritable arm of the ISI," and said the agency helped Haqqani militants during attacks on the U.S. embassy in Kabul on Sept. 13 as well as a truck bomb blast in Wardak province two days earlier that injured 77 American troops. U.S. military officers and former officials say Pakistan's intelligence agency communicated with Afghan insurgents who attacked the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters and appear to have provided them with equipment.
Estimated to number more than 10,000 fighters, the Haqqani network uses Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border from which to launch suicide bombings, commando-style assaults and other terror strikes on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan and in the capital, Kabul. The group has never carried out any attacks against targets inside Pakistan. The country's links with the Haqqani group date back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the ISI backed the group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and other resistance fighters.
Mullen's allegations likely will widen the chasm between Pakistan and the U.S., tenuous allies whose mistrust for each other deepened considerably this year.
The U.S. commando raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad raised questions in Washington about whether elements of the Pakistan's intelligence agencies knew that the Al Qaeda leader had been hiding for five years just a few miles north of the capital, Islamabad. The January arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, accused of shooting to death Pakistani men he claimed were trying to rob him, sparked fears among Pakistanis that scores of CIA operatives were secretly roaming the country.
To get Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network, Washington has signaled a willingness to link future financial aid with Islamabad's cooperation against extremists, and has hinted it could even mount some kind of unilateral, targeted strike on Haqqani strongholds in Pakistani territory.
In Karachi, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani told reporters the onus was on Washington to pull back and begin mending frayed relations between the two countries.
"They can't live with us — they can't live without us," Gilani said. "So, I would say to them that if they can't live without us, they should increase contacts with us to remove misunderstandings."
Security analyst Javed Hussain, a retired Pakistani brigadier, said a U.S. strike on Haqqani would backfire, given the array of militant groups beyond the Haqqani group that also use North Waziristan as a base of operations.
"It would be a strategic blunder," Hussain said. "North Waziristan is a hornet's nest…They would all converge and coordinate activities against the U.S. Can [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta, or President Obama afford to open another front under the present circumstances? If he does, good luck to him."
Experts say no measure may be enough to prod Pakistan's security establishment into severing ties with the Haqqani group. The military views the militant network as a valuable asset in a post-U.S. Afghanistan to prevent nuclear archrival India from extending its influence to Kabul. Pakistan's military and intelligence chiefs have always regarded India, and not Islamic extremists, as their primary enemy.
Pakistan's military leaders, says security analyst and former Pakistani general Talat Masood, "do feel that the policy they are pursuing is, in the long term, in their interest…There are others in Pakistan who believe this association with the Haqqani network is extremely detrimental to Pakistan's interests. But they are in the minority."
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in Ankara. Credit: Umit Bektas / Reuters