- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

ISLAMABAD — U.S. diplomatic efforts to persuade Pakistan to reopen NATO supply lines to the Afghan war are proving no match for rampant anti-Americanism here, with Pakistani lawmakers increasingly unwilling to support a decision that risks them branded as friends of Washington.

Opposition legislators are demanding that the U.S. end its drone strikes against militants as a precondition, complicating U.S. strategies for winding down the 10-year war just weeks before a major NATO conference in President Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago.

Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been marked by mistrust since the two countries were thrust together following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but shared interests — near-bankrupt Pakistan needs American aid, America needs Pakistan’s support against al-Qaida — had kept the alliance more or less intact.

That changed in November when U.S. airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border, triggering nationwide outrage and retaliation from Pakistan, which suspended diplomatic contacts and blocked vital land routes for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Since then, hardline Islamist and banned militant groups have staged large rallies around the country against any move to reopen the supply lines. One of the leaders of the movement has been Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Late Monday, the U.S. announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Saeed, who lives openly in Pakistan. According to many analysts, Saeed has the sympathy or support of the country’s powerful military establishment, which shares his hostility to India. The announcement could therefore be seen as a provocation in Pakistan and further strain ties with Washington.

Pakistan has placed Saeed under house arrest before, but prosecutors have been unable or unwilling to make charges stick against him. Given the popular hostility to the U.S. among the Pakistani public, it is unlikely that the government will act now against Saeed.

Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002 under U.S. pressure, but it operates with relative freedom under the name of its social welfare wing Jamaat-ud-Dawwa. The U.S. has designated both groups as foreign terrorist organizations, and it was unclear why it chose to announce the bounty.

Saeed has repeatedly denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks. Late Tuesday he appeared on at least two television chat shows, where he lambasted the United States and said it announced the bounty because of his campaign against the resumption of the NATO supplies.

“We want the parliament to listen to us and the public demands,” he said. “America should leave Afghanistan and stop its designs on Pakistan.”

Few inside the Pakistani government or the army believe a permanent supply line blockade is worth the resulting international isolation. Pakistan relies on the U.S. and other NATO countries for its economic survival and for diplomatic and military support.

But re-engaging carries a political cost in a country where association with the United States is toxic.

That cost is felt more keenly now by mainstream parties because general elections are scheduled within a year.

Seeking political cover, the weak coalition government ordered a parliamentary committee to come up with proposals for a new relationship with the U.S. On March 20, the committee presented its recommendations to parliament, which included the reopening of supply lines but with higher tariffs, and also an end to drone strikes.

U.S. officials had hoped the parliamentary session would lead to a quick resumption of ties, but that hasn’t happened.

Story Continues →