AN interesting twist has emerged in the latest story of accusations and counter-accusations between the US and Pakistan. Army chief Gen Kayani has issued a surprisingly restrained statement in response to Adm Mike Mullen`s blunt allegations about Pakistan`s support for the Haqqani network, describing them as “very unfortunate” and “disturbing”. While he claimed they are “not based on facts”, his tone still made for a relatively controlled reaction to what some are calling the most serious American accusations against Pakistan since the start of the alliance in 2001. Did it reflect an awareness on the army chief`s part that the US has shared, or at least possesses, concrete proof to back up its claims? If so, the time has come for Pakistan to rethink its approach to the Haqqani network. Quite aside from the demonstrated risks of a defence strategy that involves harbouring handpicked militants, one of the last things Pakistan can afford is to be proven a facilitator of attacks against Americans in Afghanistan.
Or was Gen Kayani`s statement simply an attempt to avoid raising the temperature further in a spat that threatens to derail relations, and worse? Despite the media`s dramatic headlines, Adm Mullen`s remarks have left some room for interpretation about whether Pakistan stands accused of directly facilitating attacks on American targets or of more general support for the Haqqanis that enabled them to carry out those attacks. If America really believed the former to be true, it is unlikely that the two countries would still be talking openly or that the Pakistani foreign minister would be scoring a photo op with a smiling President Obama. With a sober calculation of their interdependence, both sides seem to be leaving the door open for continued negotiation — senior commander Gen James Mattis met with Gen Kayani in Islamabad on Saturday, for example — a wise move in the face of developments that, if not handled carefully, could have disastrous consequences for the region.
But temperatures are still heated, with public opinion in both countries no doubt being shaped to some extent by their hawks, from former Jamaat-i-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad preparing the nation for war to those American lawmakers seeking to cut off all aid and ties. Meanwhile, government officials, although more restrained, continue to convey the irritation of their respective militaries; both Pakistan`s prime minister and its foreign minister have made bold statements about the costs to the US of losing Pakistan`s support. And on the Pakistani side it is ultimately the military that runs the show when it comes to relations with America. Its next steps will be interesting to watch, because that institution now has some tough choices to make.