ISLAMABAD >> Pakistan’s military chief is working to repair his army’s wounded pride in the bitter aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a humiliation that has strained U.S.-Pakistani relations and raised questions about the top general’s own standing.
Retired and serving officers interviewed by The Associated Press spoke of seething anger within army ranks over the secret strike the Americans carried out on May 2, undetected by Pakistan’s military.
The U.S. helicopter-borne operation set off a nationalist backlash: The usually untouchable army was sharply criticized in the press and on television talk shows, people demonstrated here in the capital demanding accountability, and open calls were made for the resignation of Gen. Asfaq Parvez Kayani, the military chief.
The army is Pakistan’s strongest institution, and Kayani the nation’s most powerful leader, but he "has to be very careful," said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood.
Like others interviewed, he doubted Kayani’s underlings would try to unseat him in an intra-army coup, but he noted occasions in the past when disgruntled officers were found to be plotting against their chief.
These rumblings generally occurred after the army suffered an embarrassing defeat, most notably Pakistan’s 1971 loss of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, when India took 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war who weren’t released for a year. Last month’s raid on the al-Qaida leader’s Abbottabad compound resurrected public comparisons to that Bangladesh debacle.
In one sign of dented military prestige, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the withdrawal of a two-star general after his men were caught on video killing an unarmed youth. The court took the unusual action "in light of the hostile environment in the society toward the military," said defense analyst Hasan Askar Rizvi.
The public disquiet weighs heavily on the officer corps and down through lower ranks, Masood said.
"It could all result in loose talk," he said, but he thought it wouldn’t go beyond that. He noted that within days of the bin Laden raid, Kayani met with key corps commanders in an effort to assure his ranking officers they had not been humiliated.
There’s "quite a lot of anger" within the military, retired Gen. Jehangir Karamat, a former chief of staff himself, said in a telephone interview from the eastern city of Lahore.
"Maybe there is talk," he told the AP. "Maybe anti-U.S. feeling has gone up in the army. But actually there is in the country a whole lot of anger over the way it happened and the humiliation suffered, and it is inevitably reflected in the army."
But, he added, "all this talk of him fighting for his job, his survival, I don’t see any signs of that."
Kayani is consistently described as a "professional soldier" by his own men and knowledgable foreigners. But the general, who as a younger officer did some training in the U.S., may face criticism because of the Pakistani army’s close past cooperation with the U.S. military and dependence on U.S. aid.
At the same time, the Pakistanis have come under sharp criticism in Washington for having apparently missed bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
Knowledgable observers here said the fracture with Washington could set back military-to-military relations between the two countries by years, as the Americans seek to step up the joint fight against al-Qaida and other militant groups in the Afghan border area.
"There is a very strong resentment, a very strong sense of betrayal of being discredited in the eyes of our own public. What our enemies have not been able to do they (the U.S.) have done to us," said a senior military official, who asked that his name not be used to speak candidly.
Pakistan has already sent home nearly 100 U.S. military personnel, most of whom were training the Frontier Corps, the tribal force that patrols Pakistan’s long and porous border with Afghanistan. Pakistan is holding up visas for CIA officials waiting to come here, and Pakistan’s intelligence agency has arrested alleged CIA informants said to have helped lead the Americans to bin Laden.
In Washington last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of State chairman who has been to Pakistan to try to patch up differences, said letting the relationship with this nuclear-armed nation deteriorate isn’t an option.
If the relationship crumbles or "were we to walk away, I think it’s a matter of time before the region is that much more dangerous and there would be a huge pull for us to have to return to protect our national interests," Mullen added.
Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan. She can be reached at http://twitter.com/kathygannon.