Pakistani military, civilian leaders close ranks against U.S. critics

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 29, 2011 

ISLAMABAD — Adm. Mike Mullen's accusation that Pakistan is supporting an Afghan insurgent group that's blamed for attacks on U.S. troops has done what no one else has been able to do: unified Pakistan's divergent politicians and its military.

At an all-day session Thursday of politicians and the military to discuss Mullen's allegations, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan "cannot be constantly bulled by the United States," while the head of Pakistan's spy agency denied Mullen's claim that it supports the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant group, and that the group is based in Pakistan.

The U.S. verbal assault on Pakistan also has riled public opinion, making it more unlikely that its government will bow to U.S. demands to take action against Haqqani. Public sentiment is growing behind a call for Pakistan to cut ties to the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.

The marathon meeting of the leaders of more than two dozen political parties, along with Pakistan's military top brass, was an emergency response to U.S. charges against the country, and in particular to fears that Washington might take military action.

A joint resolution the gathering agreed to said that it "rejected baseless allegations" made against Pakistan. The resolution called for "a new direction and policy that will focus on peace and reconciliation" in the region, an apparent repudiation of Washington's military-centric strategy.

The relationship between Islamabad and Washington has been rocked by mutual recriminations this year, culminating last week in allegations by Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Haqqani network was a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, which is part of the military.

"It's a national crisis. If such allegations remain, Pakistan could be declared a terrorist state," said Imran Khan, a cricket player turned politician, as he emerged from the meeting. "The military approach is not the solution, in Pakistan or Afghanistan — only dialogue. Give peace a chance.

"American military operations have failed in Afghanistan, so they need a scapegoat (Pakistan)."

Gilani said Pakistan no longer should be pressured by the United States to "do more" in the anti-terrorist fight.

"American statements shocked us, and negate our sacrifices and successes in the ongoing war against terror," he told the conference in a speech, the only televised part of the event.

Pakistan feels that the cost it's shouldered since 2001 for allying with the United States isn't recognized: including 2,821 soldiers killed — more than the combined losses of the international coalition in Afghanistan — along with more than 20,000 civilians killed in terrorist attacks, and damage to the economy that the government estimates at more than $60 billion.

Washington suspects that while the Pakistani military fights some Islamic extremist groups, it supports others, including the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban.

The ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, told the meeting that his organization doesn't export terrorism, according to Pakistani television reports, and that the military was ready and capable of responding to any U.S. military action. He also said the ISI had no ties to the militants of the Haqqani network, Khan said.

"There are other intelligence networks supporting groups who operate inside Afghanistan. We have never paid a penny or provided even a single bullet to the Haqqani network," Pasha told the Reuters news agency after the meeting.

The joint front presented by the military, the civilian government and other politicians was largely symbolic. In Pakistan, security and foreign policies are controlled by the military.

There was reportedly a little dissent at the meeting, with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif asking why, if there was no weight to the allegations against the ISI, Pakistan is left "alone in the world" over the issue.

A series of attacks in Afghanistan, including an attempted assault on the U.S. Embassy and the assassination of Kabul's envoy for peace talks with the insurgents, have focused anger and accusations from Afghanistan and the United States on Pakistan.

Mullen said in an interview with NPR this week that he stood by his comments made before Congress last week. However, he gave a more nuanced account of the links between the ISI and Haqqani.

"They can't turn it off overnight. I'm not asserting that the Pak mil or the ISI has complete control over the Haqqanis," he said. "The ISI specifically has enough support for the Haqqanis in terms of financial support, logistic support and, actually, sort of free passage in the safe haven, and those links are part of what enable the Haqqanis to carry out their mission."

Separately on Thursday, the United States designated five people as terrorists, all operating in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, including a senior commander of the Haqqani network, Abdul Aziz Abbasin.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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