U.S. accusations that Pakistan is supporting Afghan insurgents have triggered a nationalist backlash and whipped up media fears of an American invasion, drowning out any discussion over the army’s long use of jihadi groups as deadly proxies in the region.
People rally against the U.S. in Multan, Pakistan,
The reaction shows the problem facing the United States as it presses Pakistan for action: Strong statements in Washington provoke a negative public response that makes it more difficult for the army to act against the militants – even if it decided it was in the country’s interest to do so.
Pakistan’s mostly conservative populace is deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions a decade after Washington forged an alliance with Islamabad. Many people here believe the U.S. wants to break up Pakistan and take its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and America is very unpopular throughout the country.
By contrast, Pakistanis lack unity against Islamic militants. Politicians and media commentators are often ambiguous in their criticism of the Pakistani Taliban, despite its carrying out near weekly bombings in Pakistan over the past four years.
One small private television channel has aired an advertisement that features images of Adm. Mike Mullen, America’s top military officer, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta along with scenes of the Pakistani army fighting and raising the country’s flag.
Each time the Americans appear, a shrill voice sings: “Enemies, you have challenged a nation which has a growing knowledge of the Quran and the support from Allah. Our task in this world is to eliminate the name of the killers!”
Mullen’s comments on Capitol Hill last week set off the storm.
He said the Haqqani network, the most deadly and organized force fighting American troops in Afghanistan, was a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the strongest public statement yet by U.S. officials on Pakistan’s long suspected duplicity.
He and other U.S. officials suggested that the U.S. would use any means necessary to defend itself. That raised speculation here that America might deploy troops in Pakistan’s North Waziristan territory, the Afghan border region where the Haqqanis are based.
Most analysts view that scenario as highly unlikely because of the risks it entails for U.S. interests in the region. But it has not stopped right-wing politicians and retired generals that are well represented on TV talk shows from speculating on the threat of American boots on Pakistani soil.
On Thursday, the leaders of the country’s feuding political parties will put aside their differences to sit under one roof to discuss the issue. In announcing the meeting, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the lawmakers will discuss “the security situation in the wake of threats emanating from outside the country.”
The Sunni Ittehad Council, an organization representing the country’s Barelvi sect, often referred to as the most moderate among Pakistani Muslims, issued a statement saying it was obligatory on all Muslims to wage jihad against the United States if it attacked Pakistan.
“The Pakistani government and the armed forces should start preparing to counter any possible American attack as Islamic law suggests ‘keeping the horses ready’ to counter any sort of foreign aggression,” the statement said.
There have been a few small street protests since Mullen’s comments, but nothing major.
In some respects, the situation mirrors the atmosphere after the May 2 American helicopter raid on Osama bin Laden, which was carried out without the knowledge of the Pakistani army. There was outrage then over the infringement of the country’s sovereignty by the U.S., but little on how bin Laden had been living in the army town of Abbottabad for so long.
Now, the focus is on Pakistan’s public humiliation at the hands of a supposed ally – and the threat of American action.
There appears to have been little debate on whether Pakistan is right to allow the Haqqani network free reign in parts of the country. Nor has there been much discussion of Pakistan’s historical use of militant proxies in India. This is all the more striking because the Haqqani network and other militants are allied, at least ideologically, to the Pakistani Taliban, who carry out attacks inside Pakistan.
The dominant right-wing narrative in Pakistan following Mullen’s comments has been that the United States is losing the war in Afghanistan and wants to pin the blame on Islamabad. The threat posed by the Haqqani network is seen as exaggerated, and tackling them now is thought not to be in Pakistan’s interest.
The anger this week at America coincided with the visit of Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, allowing the media and politicians to peddle another populist trope: that Beijing will be able to replace the United States as a source of funds if and when Pakistan chooses to sever its ties with Washington.
“American allegations and threats have extremely endangered our country’s security and sovereignty. It is high time … we should consult our friendly neighbors and other countries out of this region and get their support,” said an editorial in the right-wing mass circulation paper, Nawa-i-Waqt.
Most analysts say this hope is misplaced, noting that Beijing shares international concerns about Pakistan as a breeding ground for terrorism and has shown little sign it wants to prop up the government. The hope also fails to address how China would replace American influence on institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan was already rife and growing, following the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by CIA operatives in Lahore in January and the raid on bin Laden. Both events were portrayed here as further evidence of the malign intentions of the United States.
The Pakistani media tend to focus on the supposed American threat because that’s what Pakistanis want to read and hear about, said Cyril Almedia, a liberal political analyst and columnist. But he said there were signs that those who wanted to see the alliance with the United States break down may be disappointed, noting that the army – which receives billions from the United States in aid – had been relatively muted in its reaction.
“Emotions are running high, but there are indications the military is performing a delicate balancing act,” Almedia said. “On the one hand, it is trying to give a response that satisfies a paranoid, conservative population and the rank-and-file, yet also a feeling that this is not the moment to cause a complete rupture with the United States.”