ISLAMABAD (AP) — U.S. diplomatic efforts to persuade Pakistan to reopen NATO supply lines to the Afghan war are proving no match for rampant anti-Americanism here, with Pakistani lawmakers increasingly unwilling to support a decision that risks them branded as friends of Washington.
Opposition legislators are demanding that the U.S. end its drone strikes against militants as a precondition, complicating U.S. strategies for winding down the 10-year war just weeks before a major NATO conference in President Barack Obama's hometown of Chicago.
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been marked by mistrust since the two countries were thrust together following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but shared interests — near-bankrupt Pakistan needs American aid, America needs Pakistan's support against al-Qaida — had kept the alliance more or less intact.
That changed in November when U.S. airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border, triggering nationwide outrage and retaliation from Pakistan, which suspended diplomatic contacts and blocked vital land routes for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Since then, hardline Islamist and banned militant groups have staged large rallies around the country against any move to reopen the supply lines. One of the leaders of the movement has been Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Late Monday, the U.S. announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Saeed, who lives openly in Pakistan. According to many analysts, Saeed has the sympathy or support of the country's powerful military establishment, which shares his hostility to India. The announcement could therefore be seen as a provocation in Pakistan and further strain ties with Washington.
Pakistan has placed Saeed under house arrest before, but prosecutors have been unable or unwilling to make charges stick against him. Given the popular hostility to the U.S. among the Pakistani public, it is unlikely that the government will act now against Saeed.
Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002 under U.S. pressure, but it operates with relative freedom under the name of its social welfare wing Jamaat-ud-Dawwa. The U.S. has designated both groups as foreign terrorist organizations.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Saeed's increasingly "brazen" appearances on television were a factor in the announcement. "I think the sense has been over the past few months that this kind of reward might hasten the justice system," she said.
The reward marks a shift in the long-standing U.S. calculation that going after the leadership of an organization allegedly used as a proxy by the Pakistani military would cause too much friction with the Pakistani government.
While there was no single incident or development that caused the U.S. to act now, the group has developed a more anti-Western agenda in recent years, with Westerners among the victims of the Mumbai attack, for example, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
The official acknowledged that declaring the leader a wanted man could complicate the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, as LeT and the Pakistani military "have always been close," with LeT acting as "an important tool in their country's national security kit."
But the group made itself a target the U.S. could not ignore by slowly expanding its lower-level working relationships with the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant organizations, the official said.
The official said the Pakistani military had kept the group from achieving any high-level coordination with al-Qaida as part of Pakistan's "attempts to constrain the group while preserving it as a reliable proxy."
But it's unclear whether the bounty will have any impact other than embarrassing Pakistani authorities and pleasing India, which has long called for his arrest.
Saeed, who has denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks, said the U.S. announced the reward because of his demonstrations against any reopening of the supply lines.
"We are organizing massive public meetings to inform the nation about all the threats which Pakistan will face after the restoration of the supplies," he told The Associated Press at a mosque in the capital, Islamabad.
"With the grace of God we are doing our work in Pakistan openly. It is regrettable that America has no information about me. Such rewards are usually for those who live in caves and mountains."
Few inside the Pakistani government or the army believe a permanent supply line blockade is worth the resulting international isolation. Pakistan relies on the U.S. and other NATO countries for its economic survival and for diplomatic and military support.
But re-engaging carries a political cost in a country where association with the United States is toxic.
That cost is felt more keenly now by mainstream parties because general elections are scheduled within a year.
Seeking political cover, the weak coalition government ordered a parliamentary committee to come up with proposals for a new relationship with the U.S. On March 20, the committee presented its recommendations to parliament, which included the reopening of supply lines but with higher tariffs, and also an end to drone strikes.
U.S. officials had hoped the parliamentary session would lead to a quick resumption of ties, but that hasn't happened.
Sessions to debate the recommendations have been boycotted or taken over with discussions on other national issues. Opposition parties, sensing the government wants them to share any political fallout for what will be an unpopular decision to reopen the routes, are refusing to cooperate.
"This is a hugely complicating factor. The government may now be realizing that by trying to be clever it has created problems for itself," said Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. "In parliamentary democracies it is the responsibility of the executive to formulate a policy and act on it. The Americans tell me they are being very patient, but I know they are getting very impatient."
In recent weeks, the U.S. has renewed high-level contacts with Pakistan, including meetings in Islamabad last week between Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the top U.S. commander in the region, Gen. James Mattis. Obama met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in South Korea.
But a U.S. official said talks on the supply line issue could not start before the parliament had finished debating the recommendations. He said it was unclear when that would be. He didn't give his name because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Before November, about 30 percent of the nonfatal supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan were unloaded at the port of Karachi and then trucked across Pakistan to the border. For most of the war, 90 percent of the supplies came through Pakistan, but NATO has increased its reliance on an alternate, so called "northern" route, through Central Asia in recent years.
Increased use of the northern route has removed some of the leverage Islamabad had over the West, but at a cost to the coalition. Pentagon officials now say it costs about $17,000 per container to go through the north, compared with about $7,000 per container to go over Pakistan.
The importance of the supply routes in general will rise, however, toward the end of 2014, when they will be needed to remove equipment from Afghanistan as foreign forces withdraw.
The parliamentary committee is currently reviewing its recommendations so they can be unanimously accepted by the parliament. One demand of opposition lawmakers is that the restoration of the supply lines be explicitly tied to a halt in drone attacks.
Pakistani lawmakers and government leaders have long campaigned against the strikes, which have been carried out with some level of secret collaboration with the Pakistani army. Opposition to attacks has become a rallying cry for anti-American politicians, who say they violate sovereignty and kill too many civilians.
U.S. officials say they have offered Pakistan notice about impending strikes and new limits on which militants are being targeted. Washington views the attacks as a vital tool in suppressing al-Qaida, and is seen as highly unlikely to agree to end them.
"By linking the resumption with drone attacks, things become unworkable," said Ayaz Amir, an opposition lawmaker who is something of a maverick. "The possibilities of a workable deal are being shortened. They are not going to stop drone attacks, the supply lines are not going to open. We are going to have to suffer the consequences."
Western officials are already looking ahead to the NATO conference in Chicago on May 20-21 where more than 50 heads of state will discuss progress on ending the war. The U.S. wants Pakistan to attend, but the meeting could be overshadowed if Pakistan is still blocking supplies to NATO members.
Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbott and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Kimberly Dozier and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.