Deadly NATO strikes have sapped Pakistan’s appetite for helping the US carve out a settlement in Afghanistan, experts say, with army chiefs under pressure from their furious junior ranks.
The killing of 24 soldiers in attacks on two Pakistani posts close to the Afghan border on Saturday last week has prompted fury in the nuclear-armed Muslim nation, where there is little love for the alliance with Washington.
Pakistan’s government says it will boycott an international conference on Afghanistan taking place in Germany on Monday, undermining attempts to stabilize the country after 2014 when foreign combat forces are scheduled to leave.
The army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, summoned hand-picked journalists to denounce the US and NATO’s “deliberate act of aggression.”
“Officers were very angry,” said one person who attended. “They are also under pressure from the soldiers, mid-level officers and the families of the victims who tell them: ‘Why do you stand with people who kill our soldiers?’”
It is the second time in six months that Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, has faced the wrath of junior officers incensed over the US attack.
The army has already been weakened by the covert US raid on May 2 that killed Osama bin Laden near its top academy, humiliating the military and shocking a nation obsessed by infringements of sovereignty.
Pakistan believes it has paid too high a price for signing up to the US-led “war on terror” in the dark days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The army has hardened its tone towards Washington since the bin Laden raid, leaving political parties trailing in its wake and -compounding US fears that it is still playing a double game with its old friends the Taliban.
In September, Pakistan closed ranks and called for peace and reconciliation, a message destined primarily for homegrown Taliban.
The moment was well chosen: worn down by years of Pakistani offensives and US missile strikes, the domestic Taliban were more receptive. Some have even said that exploratory peace talks have begun.
In the past six months, the number of attacks has fallen.
“The more tensions you have in the relationships with Washington, the less attacks there are in Pakistan,” said Pakistani analyst Rahimullah Yousufzai.
Another factor is the movement of the Taliban into Afghanistan. The army says 1,000 to 1,200 foot soldiers have crossed the border in the last year.
In Afghanistan, they have sought to take advantage of a vacuum. NATO plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 and has already abandoned various outposts in eastern Afghanistan.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar, religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam is said to have urged local Taliban to scale back attacks at home and concentrate on fighting the US in Afghanistan.
“The army was not allowing Taliban to cross to Afghanistan too much — now they do,” and Pakistanis are joining the insurgents fighting NATO, one Taliban member said.
The West is nervous about the prospect of a Taliban build-up. Diplomats see a political solution, facilitated by Pakistan, as the only answer to avoiding another civil war in Afghanistan.
However, in Pakistan’s eyes, that requires trust and respect from the US, which Thursday dismissed the notion of offering an apology to Islamabad over the deaths of the 24 soldiers, saying an inquiry was still ongoing.