Senior United States officials fear that despite billions of dollars and countless efforts trying to expand their relationship with Pakistan, a single successful terror attack launched from Pakistan could cause the relationship to fall apart -- and lead the United States to consider widening airstrikes and even launching special operations raids inside Pakistan.
"If there's an attack traced back to Pakistan, all bets are off," says a senior Western official who insisted on anonymity.
United States, Afghan, and many Pakistani officials believe the key to fighting the war in Afghanistan is eliminating the sanctuaries the Taliban enjoy inside Pakistan. But that is a complex, long-term effort, and United States officials are becoming increasingly impatient. That, in turn, is straining an already tense relationship with Pakistan, officials in both countries acknowledge.
"There have been compulsions on the [U.S.] military brass in Kabul and consequently, pressure on the Pakistani military, and that hasn't suited us at all," a senior Pakistani military official told ABC News. He accused the U.S. of "passing the buck" and making the Pakistani military "the scapegoat."
The tension is most strained over the semiautonomous tribal area of North Waziristan along the Afghanistan border. Residents of North Waziristan interviewed for this article describe an increasingly lawless area where, as one of them put it, "every nationality under the sun" is represented in a sort of melting pot of militant groups.
United States officials believe the leaders of the Haqqani militant network, based out of North Waziristan and long a threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is increasingly becoming international in nature, providing safehavens to militant groups, including al Qaeda, that want to attack Western targets.
For that reason the Central Intelligence Agency has dramatically increased attacks by unmanned aerial drones inside Pakistan. More than 80 strikes have been launched in North Waziristan this year alone, about double the number of strikes as launched anywhere during the entire Bush administration.
U.S. and Pakistan: Testy Allies in Terror War
But the attacks could go further than that. As first reported in Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," the United States has told Pakistani officials that a successful terror attack on the West traced back to Pakistan could lead the U.S. to dramatically expand its airstrikes inside the tribal areas, according to a senior U.S. official. Military officials in Afghanistan say the response could include special operations forces raids into North Waziristan, assuming that is where the attack was plotted.
"That's just a reality of the kinds of political pressures the administration will be under," the senior U.S. official says. The officials cautioned, however, that the response plan was just that – a plan, not one set in stone.
But the threat has not sat well with Pakistani authorities, who see the threats as similar to those expressed by arch-rival India. Pakistan has threats of their own in interviews.
If the U.S. followed through with its threat, "the [Pakistani] army would be frustrated, the [Pakistani] government would be pushed into a corner, and the government and army would be faced to take a position that would be dangerous," says the senior Pakistani military official, declining to elaborate.
The Pakistani military has parried U.S. pressure to launch a full scale operation in North Waziristan, arguing that it is already overstretched with two major military campaigns that still fester in South Waziristan and in Swat. It also argues any operation in North Waziristan would increase terrorist attacks across Pakistan, and the country is neither ready nor willing to endure that.
"It requires action and we are now planning action to go there, but we have other issues also. We have to stabilize the whole province, we have the other [tribal] agencies, we have constraint of resources," Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who heads the Pakistani military along the border, told ABC News and other news outlets last week.
"There's a military saying, 'always have one foot on ground,' so I can't open up so many fronts," he said. "We have other agencies to stabilize first. And then let us stabilize [those], and we will take a decision."
Pakistan Pushes Back Against U.S. Pressure
As the senior Pakistani military official who did not want to be identified put it: "This needs to be left to us. You can't push us. We know our constraints."
But U.S. officials and long-term observers in Pakistan believe there is another reason why the Pakistani military refuses to launch a major campaign in North Waziristan: a long-term relationship with Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has been used as a proxy against Indian interests in Afghanistan for decades.
"There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India," the U.S. embassy in Islamabad wrote in a Sept. 23, 2009 cable leaked by WikiLeaks. "Afghan instability by definition leads the Pakistani establishment to increase support for the Taliban and thereby, unintentionally, create space for al-Qaeda."
The de-facto leader of the Haqqani network is Jalaluddin's son, Sirajuddin, who U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say is more radical and international-minded than his father. Sirajuddin sits on both the senior al Qaeda and Taliban shuras, or leadership councils, and is now competing more aggressively for donations earmarked for al Qaeda, according to officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Haqqani's business interests and economic ties run through Pakistan and the Gulf countries, according to U.S. officials and leaked cables. And its relationship with the Pakistani military is decades old.
"I think for a very long time, Haqqani has been worked with the military very closely, since 1975. It's a 35-year-old record which predates even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan," argues Ahmed Rashid, an author with long experience reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan. "I don't think the military or the intelligence services or the government up in the Northwest is trying to do anything to stop Haqqani… The fact is that their survival is being helped and guaranteed by the authorities here."
Inside North Waziristan, Haqqani fighters have tried to limit the damage from a large increase in drone attacks, which has been facilitated by the U.S. military "lending" drones to the CIA, according to a U.S. official. Haqqani fighters are increasing their tendency to live in small groups – no more than 10 people together – and spread out across a wide area, according to residents of the area and U.S. military officials in Afghanistan. Many of those groups are based next to Pakistani Frontier Corps outposts, and sometimes, Frontier Corps soldiers "hand out food and water to the fighters," according to a resident of the area.
Haqqani commanders have also stepped up a violent campaign against spies who facilitate the drone strikes. One propaganda video produced by Haqqani militants shows a public execution of an alleged spy who confesses on tape – most likely under duress – to being paid by the CIA.
Pakistan's Ties to Haqqani Network
The Haqqani network is also trying to open up new supply lines into Afghanistan. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan believe Haqqani fighters are coming into Afghanistan from the tribal agency of Kurram, where the CIA does not have permission to use unmanned, aerial drones.
Arab, Punjabi, Chechen, Uzbek, and even European militants all largely live separately in North Waziristan, according to Pakistani analysts, but when anyone crosses into North Waziristan, a Haqqani commander leads them. U.S. military officials say the Haqqani network has taken over primary responsibility to train militants from al Qaeda.
The U.S. military is killing as many as 100 Haqqani fighters every week, and last month said it captured or killed more than 20 "senior leaders" in raids by special operations forces at night. But the pool of Haqqani recruits in Pakistan is massive, thanks to a large system of radical madrassas, or religious schools. And the military can't significantly degrade the Haqqani network's ability to operate without Pakistan's help -- which has not been forthcoming, the military says.
"We're not seeing any real effort by anyone to interdict Haqqani," says a senior military official.
The CIA and Pakistan's premiere intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, are working closely together, according to senior Pakistani and U.S. officials. The U.S., for example, was recently allowed to expand its presence in the southwest city of Quetta, where the ISI has long resisted any U.S. presence.
But the strain between the United States and Pakistan has increased in the last few months, perhaps best exhibited in a briefing a senior Pakistani military official gave to Pakistani reporters last week. Details of that conversation, which were published in Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English daily newspaper, revealed a large gulf between the two countries.
The senior military official, according to Dawn, "listed a catalogue of complaints the 'people of Pakistan' have against the US. These include: the U.S. still has a 'transactional' relationship with Pakistan; the U.S. is interested in perpetuating a state of 'controlled chaos' in Pakistan; and, perhaps most explosively given the Wikileaks' revelations, the 'real aim of U.S. strategy is to denuclearize Pakistan.'"
Asked to predict how the U.S.-Pakistan relationship would evolve in the next year, the senior military official said simply: "I see difficulties and pitfalls."