ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s warning to Islamabad over suspected ties to militants will hurt efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and fuel anti-Americanism, the chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee said on Friday.
Pakistan is seen as critical to bringing peace to neighboring Afghanistan, but the United States has failed to persuade it to go after militant groups it says cross the border to attack Western forces in Afghanistan.
“This is not helping either the United States, Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Salim Saifullah told Reuters. “There will be pressure on the (Pakistan) government to get out of this war,” he said, referring to the U.S. war on militancy.
Obama warned Pakistan on Thursday that its ties with “unsavory characters” had put relations with the United States at risk, as he ratcheted up pressure on Islamabad to cut links with militants mounting attacks in Afghanistan. [nN1E795132]
His comments are likely to deepen a crisis in the strategic alliance between the United States and Pakistan.
Obama accused Pakistan’s leaders of “hedging their bets” on Afghanistan’s future, but stopped short of threatening to cut off U.S. aid, despite calls from lawmakers for a tougher line over accusations that Pakistani intelligence supported strikes on U.S. targets in Afghanistan.
Pakistan says it has sacrificed more than any other nation that joined America’s global “war on terror” after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, losing 10,000 soldiers and security forces, and 30,000 civilians.
But its performance against militants operating from its unruly tribal northwest border region is a frequent source of tension between Washington and Islamabad.
Ties were heavily strained after U.S. special forces launched a unilateral raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town on May 2.
They deteriorated further after the top U.S. military official accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency of supporting a September 13 attack by the Taliban-allied Haqqani militant group on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Saifullah said Washington’s public criticism of Pakistan would only encourage militant groups.
“War in Afghanistan is passing through a critical phase, evolutionary phase,” he said. “At this stage, muddying water is not appropriate. This is exactly what the militants want. They are playing to their tune. This is adding strength to them.”
Some analysts agree with his assessment.
“This will create more tension and what the Americans want is not likely to happen in the near future,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
The United States has long called for a military offensive against the Haqqani network, which it says is based in North Waziristan, a global hub for militants on the Afghan border.
Pakistan sees the Haqqani network — perhaps the most feared Taliban-allied insurgents in Afghanistan — as a counterweight to the growing influence of rival India there, analysts say.
Pakistan denies links to the group, which says it no longer operates from sanctuaries in North Waziristan.
Obama made clear that future U.S.-Pakistani relations would depend heavily on whether Islamabad complies with Washington’s demands to sever connections with insurgents.
“Now, he is really serving notice that Pakistan policy is under review,” said former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan.
But public demands from Washington will make Islamabad more reluctant to take action because caving in after constant pressure could be political suicide in a country where anti-American sentiment runs high, and the government is unpopular.
Many Pakistanis believe they have been dragged into a war against militancy that only serves American interests.
That sentiment has become more widespread because of an escalation of U.S. drone aircraft missile strikes against militants in Pakistan under the Obama administration.
“Are we owned by the United States? If so, please make our terms of servitude clear Mr. Obama so we can just get on with it,” said Mishayl Naek, a bank employee in the city of Karachi, in reaction to the U.S. president’s demands of Pakistan.
For Asad Ali Bangash, 45, Obama’s comments were proof of what he has feared all along.
“America wants an excuse to invade Pakistan. There are difficult times ahead for Pakistan, because America has decided that Pakistan has to be eliminated because it is a fort of Islam,” said Bangash, who runs a medical supply business.
Obama wants to stabilize Afghanistan as U.S. forces are drawn down with the goal of ending their combat mission by 2014.
Instead of public confrontation, Obama should work more closely with Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan, said Saifullah.
“This is no time for this kind of (allegation) when they are pulling out, a troops drawdown,” he said. “They should be seriously working on the endgame.”
Even if Pakistan wanted to eliminate the Haqqanis, an assault could be risky. The group, which says it has more than 10,000 fighters, spent years forming alliances with various militant groups seeking to topple the U.S.-backed government.
The Haqqanis’ ties with powerful tribes are another concern. Intelligence officials say Pakistan fears an assault would provoke a larger tribal uprising in North Waziristan.
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway, Qasim Nauman and Chris Allbritton in ISLAMABAD, Imtiaz Shah and Sahar Ahmed in KARACHI, and Saud Mehsud in DERA ISMAIL KHAN; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
Mochila insert follows.