Pakistan's relations with the United States reached a new low this month after Washington accused the Inter-Services Intelligence, and by inference the Pakistani military, of supporting the Haqqani network of attacking the US embassy in Kabul and NATO targets in Afghanistan.Bickering and worse is not uncommon between the two. The question is whether it's different this time and what this might mean for a relationship that has been the bane of India's security establishment for decades.
Washington has expressed reservations about Pakistan's role in the war on terror before. This time, says Pakistani analyst Saleem Safi, "They have not left any doubt that they are accusing the ISI of duplicity and for the deaths of Americans in Afghanistan." This is much more serious, he argues, not only for US-Pakistan relations but also for relations between the civilian and military leadership within Pakistan.
US and South Asian analysts say this was a conflict waiting to happen. Pakistan and the US have different objectives in Afghanistan. Islamabad wants a pro-Pakistani regime, defined as Taliban rule, in Kabul. The US wants one hostile to al Qaeda and terrorism, preferably dedicated to making a normal country out of Afghanistan. Pakistans allies in this goal are exactly those militant groups that the US distrusts the most: the Haqqani network, Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura.
Both countries still need each other too much to let this present squabble get out of hand. Pakistanis fear that without US funds their precarious economy will crumble.
"Pakistan will implode if that happens," warns analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc, a work on the economics of the Pakistani military. This is the worry that all parties share for the future of Pakistan.
The US still ships 30% of its supplies to its troops in Afghanistan through Karachi. Ultimately, admit US diplomats, their country can never turn its back on Pakistan for fear of its nuclear arsenal going AWOL.
However, when the senior most military officer of the US army, Mike Mullen, tells Congress that the Pakistani military is using cutouts to kill US troops, it can be assumed this marks a shift to a policy of smaller carrots and bigger sticks for Pakistan.
For many Pakistanis, the links between the military and Haqqani are irrelevant. This is all about their sense of being used and abused by the US.
"They are never satisfied with all that Pakistan is doing. We are always asked to do more," cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan told a gathering in Gujranwala on Sunday. Khan, who is riding an anti-American wave in the polls, says Pakistan "should just break ties with the US."
But increasingly Pakistanis see this is a choice between economic well-being or political independence. It is a narrative Americans find baffling. For them, this is about being for or against what are clearly terrorists. "Pakistan has evidently no concept of how deeply angered the US leadership is over, one, Osama being in Abbottabad of all places for five years, and then , two, the Haqqani group targeting the US Embassy," says Teresita Schaffer, South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution.
The US may be hammering Rawalpindi, but it is the Pakistani civilian government which is coming out the worse for the dispute.
An exasperated Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said, "the Americans should decide once and for all. Are we friends or not?" Zardari has preferred to let others speak on his behalf. But they express frustration at their situation. The military is whipping up anti-American sentiment and the civilian leaders are being caught in the crossfire.
The civilian government is not under suspicion. "With the civilian government the Americans complain of corruption and bureaucratic red-tape. But they are accusing the Pakistan army of stabbing them in the back," says Safi.
Many Pakistanis now say the Asif Ali Zardari government has sold out to US interests. "We knew that General Musharraf was an American puppet. We did not know that Zardari would bend even more to the US," declares ex-ISI chief and right-wing ideologue, Hamid Gul.
Zardari ordered an All Parties Conference in a bid to present a united front to the military. The military leadership in Pakistan did not wait for a coordinated civilian reaction but instead called for an unprecedented emergency session of commanders. Not only did the military reject the US allegations but also voted down any proposal to start military operations in North Waziristan, the Haqqani operational base.
The army has used the spat with the US to try and gain concessions once more from the Americans as well as the civilian leadership. The US accusations have widened the trust gap between Kayani and Zardari.
Not that there have not been a few dissenting notes from within the Pakistani system.
In his briefing on Thursday, ISI chief Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha told leaders his organization "did not export terrorism." Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif pointedly commented, "There is no smoke without fire. You people must be doing something." Before the exchange could turn ugly, General Ashfaq Ali Kayani intervened and told Sharif, "I will address your reservations."
Analyst Moeed Yusuf says, "Its easy to blame others. We have to see our record. We are not being fair with ourselves."
The winner in the short term has been the military - which is seen to have stood up to the US. Also, Pakistanis genuinely believe that any operation in North Waziristan at this point would be counterproductive if not impossible.
India will hope that the present kerfuffle will at least result in reduced military aid to the Pakistani system.
Privately, Indian officials have said that the US' billions have led Kayani to believe he does not have to take the Indo-Pakistan peace process to seriously for now.
The other player of note, and the rising star in Pakistan relations, is China. Pakistan has put it out that it does not need the US as a prop these days because it can count on China to hold it up.
While Beijing's special relationship with Pakistan is not in doubt, China has proven to be more cautious about bailing out Pakistan than Islamabad would like. Its aid and military offerings to Pakistan remain a fraction of those of the US. China tends to demand mineral concessions and the like in return for whatever assistance it provides to Pakistan.
Pakistan's options are also limited. Its main point of advantage is the US desire to roll back its military presence in Afghanistan - a fact that allows Islamabad to play a waiting game. However, this also means the US may feel the need to play hardball more often in the near future. Hence talk of the US carrying out unilateral military action inside Pakistan, a la Abbottabad.
Pakistani expert and ex-diplomat Dan Markey of the Council for Foreign Relations commented, "These are ugly options. They could get even uglier. But this is now the reality."