- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

ISLAMABAD — U.S. accusations that Pakistan is supporting Afghan insurgents have triggered a nationalist backlash and whipped up media fears of a U.S. invasion, drowning out any discussion about the army’s long use of jihadi groups as deadly proxies in the region.

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 is 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 near-weekly bombings in Pakistan in the past four years.

One small private television channel has aired an advertisement that features images of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Leon E. 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 Koran and the support from Allah. Our task in this world is to eliminate the name of the killers.”

Adm. Mullen’s comments on Capitol Hill last week set off the storm.

He said the Haqqani Network, the most deadly and organized force fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is 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 the U.S. 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 who 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 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 would discuss “the security situation in the wake of threats emanating from outside the country.”

The Sunni Ittehad Council is an organization representing the country’s Barelvi sect, often referred to as the most moderate among Pakistani Muslims. The council issued a statement saying it is obligatory on all Muslims to wage jihad against the United States if it attacks 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 says.

There have been a few small street protests since Adm. Mullen’s comments, but nothing major.

In some respects, the situation mirrors the atmosphere after the May 2 U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden, which was carried out without the knowledge of the Pakistani army.

There was outrage then about 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 U.S. 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, with the Pakistani Taliban, who carry out attacks inside Pakistan.

The dominant right-wing narrative in Pakistan after Adm. 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 the U.S. 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 hasn’t shown that it wants to prop up the government.

The hope also fails to address how China would replace U.S. influence on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions.

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