Who will blink first on the latest set of ultimatums from the U.S. to Pakistan on the Haqqani network remains to be seen.

The gloves are off. The United States is delivering what it hopes will be knock-out punches on Pakistan by trying to “name and shame” the country as an “exporter of terror,” even as an attempt has begun, slowly but surely, to financially push Pakistan into submission.

When U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and Iraq on Thursday, they were evidently determined to “call a spade a spade” vis-à-vis Pakistan's institutional links to terrorism.

After describing the Haqqani network as “a strategic arm of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence[ISI]”, Admiral Mullen went on to say: “The actions by the Pakistani government to support them — actively and passively — represent a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction.”

A week of American recriminations had clearly peaked. The build-up had been systematic with even the U.S. Ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, being roped in — a sharp contrast with his usual task of assuaging frayed nerves in Islamabad whenever Washington begins to tighten the screws.

Angered by the audacity of the recent high-profile attacks inside Afghanistan — which Admiral Mullen described as a tactical shift from direct confrontation with troops by the Taliban to “reap maximum strategic and psychological effect with minimal input” — the U.S. has abandoned its recent policy of “quiet diplomacy”.

This was particularly evident after the September 13 attack on the U.S. mission in Kabul. First off the block was Mr. Panetta, who blamed the Haqqani network for the attack and said the U.S. would do “everything to defend our forces”, suggesting possible unilateral action if Pakistan did not act against the terrorist havens in its territory. Then came Mr. Munter's interview to Radio Pakistan in which he accused the Pakistani government of having links with the Haqqani network which, according to the U.S., has persistently sabotaged attempts to restore normalcy in Afghanistan.

And, hours after the former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had been leading the Afghan effort to negotiate with the Taliban, was assassinated on Tuesday, Admiral Mullen accused the ISI of using the Haqqani network to wage a proxy war. “The ISI has been doing this — working for, supporting proxies for — an extended period of time. It is a strategy in the country and I think that strategic approach has to shift in the future.” Two days later came his ‘Haqqani-network-is-the-veritable-arm-of-the-ISI' statement at the Senate hearing.

Failed contacts

Throughout the week after the September 13 attack there was a series of contacts at the political, military and intelligence levels between the two countries. Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani met Admiral Mullen in Spain at the NATO Chiefs of Defence meeting, Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar had a three-and-a-half-hour-long session with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session, ISI Director-General Shuja Pasha had a “hush-hush” interaction in Washington with Mr. Panetta and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert S. Mueller met Interior Minister Rehman Malik in Islamabad.

Evidently, the Americans had one litany. Equally evident was Pakistan's reluctance to blink. Islamabad's first official response was that these remarks were not in line with the cooperation the two countries had in counter-terrorism. Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani threw the U.S.' pet phrase, “do more”, back at Washington with the official narrative here being that Pakistan cannot be held responsible for security breaches in Afghanistan.

Also, raising the issue of terrorist havens on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, Islamabad has built a case around the question of how the “militants” got right up to Kabul, or Wardak where five Afghans were killed and 77 U.S. soldiers wounded in a truck-bomb attack on September 10, despite the presence of international and Afghan forces.

Teaser campaign

Given how often the two have been snapping at each other and how seemingly futile the U.S. ultimatums to Pakistan have been, Washington's threats have been likened to ‘last-day-sale' teaser advertisements.

Just how wide the differences are was evident from the conflicting versions on the meeting between Ms. Clinton and Ms. Khar. According to the Americans, the September 13 attack changed the focus of the meeting, which had been planned to allow both sides to hear each other out in an unhurried manner and without the burden of having to attempt a joint statement. “The issue of the Haqqani network was the first thing on the Secretary's agenda and also the last,” the State Department said in a background briefing.

Pakistan, on the other hand, insisted that the meeting had not been “one-dimensional” and that all issues, including “perceptional” ones, were discussed; parrying all questions regarding action against the Haqqani network saying they were operational details that cannot be made public.

Changing lines

While General Kayani's response in Spain was that Pakistan reserved the sovereign right to formulate policy in accordance with its national interest, the change made by the Foreign Office in the reply offered by its spokesperson to a question on whether Pakistan considered the Haqqani network an enemy and a threat to its interests was revealing. At the press conference, the spokesperson's answer was: “Any kind of terrorism is unacceptable. We condemn any act against Pakistan or any other country since we condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” However, in the transcript of the briefing circulated later, any possibility of inferring from the reply that Pakistan considered the Haqqani network a terrorist organisation was removed. Instead, what was circulated was this: “Pakistan has suffered from terrorism and terrorist attacks. We remain deeply concerned about militant activity from across the border into Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan is committed to peace, reconciliation, stability and development in Afghanistan and the region.”

Apart from its strategic-depth policy and use of terrorists as assets — which many within the country are increasingly questioning as it has backfired — the Pakistani establishment's refusal to fall in line also stems from what it perceives as American dependence on Islamabad for the “endgame” in Afghanistan.

That the U.S. does not plan to cut itself off from Pakistan like it did in the past was made amply clear — twice — by Admiral Mullen this week. At the Senate hearing, he did not mince words. “Despite deep personal disappointments in the decisions of the Pakistani military and government, I still believe that we must stay engaged. This is because while Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of the solution. A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement. We have completely disengaged in the past. That disengagement failed and brings us where we are today.”

The price of the carrot

So, as of now, the U.S. intends to continue with its carrot-and-stick policy but from what transpired in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee this week, Washington may try to exact a heavier price from Pakistan for the carrot. The U.S. Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programmes Appropriations Bill 2012 passed by the Senate on Wednesday has linked economic and security assistance to Pakistan to fighting the Haqqani network.

The European Union and the United Kingdom are also making aid conditional, to cite few instances of how assistance from elsewhere is also becoming dearer. While the U.K. has a new law that links international aid to effective transparency laws in recipient countries and is not Pakistan-specific as such, the EU, after last year's experience during the mega floods that inundated a third of the country, has told Pakistan that financial assistance would be provided solely on the guarantee of direct access to the beneficiaries. Though these are unrelated to terrorism, there is a sneaking suspicion and, of course, the omni-present conspiracy theory that all this is a part of a bid to corner the country.

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