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Pakistani army chief poised to resist U.S. pressure

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ISLAMABAD >> Despite mounting pressure from the United States since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, seems unlikely to respond to U.S. demands to root out other militant leaders, according to people who have met with him in the past 10 days.

While the general does not want to abandon the alliance completely, he is more likely to pursue a strategy of decreasing Pakistan’s reliance on the U.S., and continuing to offer just enough cooperation to keep the billions of dollars in U.S. aid flowing, said a confidant of the general who has spoken with him recently.

Such a response is certain to test U.S. officials, who are more mistrustful of Pakistan than ever. Emboldened by the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, U.S. officials say they now have greater leverage to force Pakistani cooperation in hunting down Taliban and al-Qaida leaders so the United States can end the war in Afghanistan.

The United States will now push harder than ever for Kayani to break relations with other militant leaders who U.S. officials believe are hiding in Pakistan, with the support of the military and intelligence service, a senior U.S. official said.

These leaders include Mullah Muhammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban; the allied militant network of Sirajuddin Haqqani; and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the group that the U.S. holds responsible for the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in 2008, the official said.

Pakistani officials, meanwhile, are anxiously waiting to see if any new intelligence about al-Qaida in Pakistan spills from the U.S. raid that could be used to exert more pressure on them, and what form that pressure might take.

But those who have spoken with Kayani recently said that demands to break with top militant leaders are likely to be too much for the military chief, who is scheduled to address an unusual, closed-door joint session of Parliament on Friday to salvage his reputation and explain the military’s lapses surrounding the American raid.

The U.S. wish list is tantamount to an overnight transformation of Pakistan’s long held strategic posture that calls for using the militant groups as proxies against Pakistan’s neighbors, they said. It comes as Kayani faces mounting anti-American pressure from hard-line generals in his top command, two of the people who met with him said.

Many in the lower ranks of the military have greater sympathy for the militant groups than for the U.S. To take out the leadership of these groups — longtime assets of the Pakistani army and intelligence services — would result in such a severe backlash from the militants that a “civil war” in Pakistan would result, said a former senior Pakistani official who was consulted by Kayani in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid.

The general, who has been courted for nearly three years by the United States’ most senior military officers in an effort to persuade him to launch an attack against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, was even more unlikely to do so now, the Pakistani said.

While increasingly frustrated with Pakistan, U.S. officials would also like to avoid a complete rupture of relations with a nuclear-armed state that is essential to ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

With the U.S. eager to wind down in Afghanistan, Washington needs Pakistan more than ever, a factor that would play into the general’s next moves, said Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former director general of Pakistan’s chief spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, who met with Kayani recently.

“Without Pakistani support, the United States cannot win the battle in Afghanistan,” he said. “Now the Americans are saying please bring the Taliban to the table.”

The army chief was described as angry that the Obama administration failed to trust him enough to tell him before the raid, asserting that in keeping him in the dark the U.S. had alienated Pakistan’s best friend, Qazi said.

Kayani cannot ignore the sentiment of his soldiers, said Riaz Khokhar, a former ambassador to the United States, who met with Kayani. “There is a feeling in the rank and file of the army from A to Z that the United States is a most untrustworthy ally,” Khokhar said.

“We don’t want to be an enemy of the United States, but the experience of friendship with the United States has not been a pleasant experience, so we have to find a middle road,” he said.

Qazi said hard questions were being asked about whether the U.S. financial support to the Pakistani military was “worth the lives we have lost” in fighting Islamic militants.

Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has granted more than $20 billion in military and development assistance, an amount that does not include covert aid, according to K. Alan Kronstadt, the South Asian Affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

Cutting ties would be extremely costly for the Pakistani military, said Shuja Nawaz, head of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington and an expert on the Pakistani military.

Anti-Pakistan sentiment was hardening in Congress as Pakistan waited for approval of payment arrears for its costs in fighting insurgents, Nawaz said. There was also money for this year’s Pakistani military budget that Congress still had to approve, he said.

In the short term, however, Kayani seemed to be more concerned with the blow to the morale of his troops than with further damage to the already eroded relationship with the U.S., according to the accounts from those who met him.

Kayani visited six army garrisons this week in an effort to dispel doubts about his leadership and the capacity of the army.

On Monday he addressed officers in Rawalpindi, Kharian and Sialkot, and on Wednesday he visited troops in Lahore, Multan and Bahawalpur, all towns and cities in Punjab province, the heart of the army’s recruitment area.

During his appearances, according to soldiers interviewed afterward, Kayani acknowledged an intelligence failure in not knowing that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, a small garrison city with a top military academy, about 70 miles from the capital. But he added that this did not mean that Pakistan was to be “blamed for everything,” and he said that Pakistan still wanted good relations with the U.S., one of the soldiers said.

His audiences peppered the general with questions, another soldier said, many of which centered on why Pakistan did not know of the raid in advance.

In a meeting with about 20 Pakistani journalists last week, Kayani and the head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, said the United States had mounted the operation alone because bin Laden was “too big a prize,” according to two accounts of the meeting as well as published reports.

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