There are two ways to explain why the Obama administration is distancing itself from harsh criticism of Pakistan by America's top military officer _ that the U.S. is playing "good cop/bad cop," or that policymaking toward a key ally is in disarray.
If the U.S. did intend to raise the heat on the Pakistani government over its alleged support for Afghan militants and then gently back off that position, it's unclear what the strategy has accomplished _ other than further straining the already troubled relationship between the two countries.
Pakistani officials were outraged last week when Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the Pakistani military's spy agency supported militants from the Haqqani network who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan on Sept. 13 and carried out a truck bombing days earlier that wounded 77 American soldiers.
They were the most serious allegations levied at Pakistan since the beginning of the Afghan war and carried special weight because they came from Mullen, considered one of the Pakistani military's closest friends in the U.S. administration.
Mullen said the Haqqani network "acts as a veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. The network is based in Pakistan's rugged North Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border and is considered the most dangerous threat to American troops in Afghanistan.
Faced with Pakistan's vehement denials, the White House, Pentagon and State Department carefully refused to endorse Mullen's comments Wednesday.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said Mullen's statement was "not language I would use."
But Carney and other officials said Pakistan must do more to tackle the Haqqani network.
Mullen has stuck to his guns since his congressional testimony. When asked by National Public Radio on Wednesday whether he would change anything he said last week, Mullen said, "Not a word. I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased."
He claimed the ISI provides the Haqqani network with funding, logistical support and a safe haven.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who testified alongside Mullen in Congress, could also be seen as a member of the "bad cop" team. After the embassy attack, he issued what was construed in Pakistan as a veiled warning that Washington may take unilateral action against the Haqqani network unless the Pakistani government moved against the militants.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, Cameron Munter, could be seen as the "good cops."
"I have no argument with anyone who says this is a very difficult and complex relationship because it is," Clinton told reporters at the State Department on Wednesday. "But I also believe strongly that we have to work together despite the difficulties."
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani also indicated Thursday that his government was committed to working with the U.S. But he made it clear that no military action against the Haqqani network was in the cards.
"Pakistan cannot be pressured to do more," Gilani told political and military leaders meeting to formulate a response to Mullen's allegations.
A "good cop/bad cop" routine could aim at extracting concessions from Pakistan that fall short of launching an operation against the Haqqanis.
Using the military man Mullen _ on his way out of his post _ to make the accusation would enable the State Department and White House to deliver the message they wanted to Islamabad, while standing at a distance.
Clinton and others could position themselves as standing between Pakistan and officials in the administration and Congress who are threatening extreme steps, such as unilateral strikes or cutting off the billions of dollars in funding Pakistan receives from the U.S. every year. They could argue that Pakistan needs to throw them a bone to head off these threats.
The "good cop/bad cop" routine also gives Washington a way to test out how strongly it can push Islamabad without prompting a backlash, something U.S. officials seem divided on.
The Americans are well aware that the Pakistani government faces profound anti-U.S. sentiment among the public. They also know the Pakistanis have ways to retaliate if they are feeling too much heat from Washington. Most notably, they could shut off a crucial landline: NATO ships a large percentage of the supplies for its troops in Afghanistan through the country. The U.S also wants Pakistan to play a role in reconciliation in Afghanistan _ one reason that Clinton has been reluctant to list the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization, apparently concerned the step would burn too many bridges.
Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the back-and-forth over Mullen's comments seems to reflect internal disagreements over how to deal with Pakistan's alleged links to the Haqqani network.
"The fact that there seems to be both confusion, disarray and some deeper division within the government is troubling," said Markey in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
He said he could see how it could make sense for Mullen to take a more coercive stance toward Pakistan, but only if he had the entire U.S. government behind him.
"If you don't, then really what you have is sort of a poisonous statement without much to back it up," said Markey.
Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council, said earlier this year he was worried about who was taking the lead on Pakistan in the Obama administration, given the paucity of experts on the country.
"It is not clear who is coordinating Pakistan policy today in Washington, and even less clear who is willing to take leadership on Pakistan in Washington and in South Asia," said Nawaz in an essay on Foreign Policy's website.
Pakistan has refused to target the Haqqani network's sanctuary in North Waziristan, saying its troops are stretched too thin by operations in other parts of the tribal region. Many analysts believe, however, that the government doesn't want to threaten its historical links with the group because it could be a useful ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Markey said the Pakistanis are clearly upset by Mullen's statements, "but they won't do anything constructive about it, so we will end up in a worse relationship with no positive benefits on the counterterrorism or counterinsurgency side."
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