Pakistan was yesterday scheduled to hold rare cross-party talks designed to build unity in the face of mounting US pressure to act against the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, or face the consequences.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was conducting a final review on whether to blacklist the network, linked to Pakistani intelligence, as a terror group, which risks then exposing Pakistan to economic sanctions.
The outgoing top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has accused Pakistan of exporting violent extremism to Afghanistan and called the Haqqani network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
US officials want Pakistan to launch an offensive against the Haqqanis, but the military says it is too over-stretched fighting local Taliban to open a new front against a US enemy that does not pose a threat to Pakistan.
Pakistan officially denies any support for Haqqani attacks in Afghanistan, but has nurtured Pashtun warlords for decades as a means of influencing events across the border and offsetting the might of arch-rival India.
Unease is now growing over the US pressure, with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expected to use the conference to rally support behind the government and military, which is traditionally the arbiter of Pakistani foreign policy.
Pakistan’s most senior military officers would attend the conference, but it was unclear to what extent civilian politicians would question them on the merits of policies exposing Pakistan to risk of international isolation.
ISI chief Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha would brief the conference with Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who had just returned from talks in the US and at the UN General Assembly, a senior official said.
Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani, considered the most powerful man in Pakistan, and the ceremonial head of the armed forces, General Khalid Shameem Wynne, would also attend, the official said.
Prominent among the politicians would be members of Gilani’s fragile coalition, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and heads of Islamic parties such as pro-Taliban cleric Fazlur Rehman.
Gilani’s office said they would adopt a “joint stand on national security.”
His main ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which leads a precarious majority in parliament, faces strong domestic criticism for supporting the US in its war on terror and providing logistical support.
Overnight, Washington appeared to tread more carefully on Pakistan, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying he would not have used the same language as Mullen, and Clinton saying the countries had to “work together.”
However, Pakistanis are deeply suspicious of US intentions and fearful of unilateral action similar to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2.