The U.S. threat last week that "all options" are on the table if the Pakistani military doesn't cut its ties with the Haqqani network of anti-U.S. insurgents created the appearance of a crisis involving potential U.S. military escalation in Pakistan.
But there is much less substance to the administration's threatening rhetoric than was apparent. In fact, it was primarily an exercise in domestic political damage control, although compounded by an emotional response to recent major attacks by the Haqqani group on U.S.-NATO targets, according to two sources familiar with the policymaking process on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One source close to that process doubted that there was any planning for military action against Pakistan in the immediate future. "I'm sure we're going to be talking to the Pakistanis a lot about this," the source said.
Despite the tough talk about not tolerating any more high-profile attacks on U.S. troops, the sources suggested, there is no expectation that anything the United States can do would change Pakistani policy toward the Haqqani group.
The Haqqani network, a force of 15,000 to 20,000 Pashtun fighters led by former anti-Soviet Mujahideen figure Jalalludin Haqqani, has long declared its loyalty to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Looming over the discussions about how to react to the latest attacks is the firm conclusion reached by the Barack Obama administration in last December's AfPak policy review that it was futile to try to put pressure on Pakistan over the issue of ties with the Haqqani group.
The Obama administration had tried repeatedly in 2009 and 2010 to put pressure on Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani to attack the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, but without any result. Finally, in the December policy review, it was agreed that attacking Pakistan publicly for its ties with the Haqqani network and its refusal to attack those forces in North Waziristan not only would not achieve the desired result but was counterproductive and should stop, according to sources familiar with that review.
But a rising tide of Haqqani group attacks on U.S. and NATO targets in 2011 has made the Obama administration's AfPak policy much more vulnerable to domestic political criticism than ever before.
The New York Times reported September 24 that the number of attacks by the Haqqani group was five times greater and the number of roadside bombs had increased by 20 percent in 2011 than during the same period of 2010, according to a senior U.S. military official.
Even more damaging to the administration's war policy, however, was the impression created by the attack by the Haqqani network on the U.S. embassy and the U.S.-NATO headquarters in the most heavily- guarded section of Kabul September 13, and a truck bomb attack on a NATO base three days earlier that wounded 77 U.S. troops.
Top U.S. national security officials had no choice but to cast blame on Pakistan for those attacks and to suggest that the administration was now taking a much tougher line toward Islamabad, despite the knowledge that it was not likely to shake the Pakistani policy, according to the two knowledgeable sources.
"We're in a situation where the administration could not do nothing," said one of the sources.
The administration decided within a few days of the high-profile attack in Kabul on September 13 to highlight the claim that the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, was somehow complicit in the recent Haqqani group attacks.
On September 17, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter charged that the Haqqani network had carried out the attack on the U.S. embassy and U.S.-NATO headquarters a few days earlier and declared, "There is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistani government."
Three days later Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters, "We are going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces" in Afghanistan.
Then the administration put out a story through the Washington Post Sep. 21 that was clearly aimed at satisfying the domestic political audience that the administration was sufficiently tough toward Pakistan on its ties with the Haqqani group. Diplomatic correspondent Karen DeYoung reported that the Obama administration had given "what amounts to an ultimatum" to Pakistan to cut ties with the Haqqani group, warning that the United States would "act unilaterally if Pakistan does not comply".
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Sep. 22, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen made the unusual admission that the Haqqani network's attacks in Afghanistan had become "more brazen, more aggressive, more lethal" than ever before, but explained it as a function of ties between the group and Pakistan's ISI.
He portrayed the Haqqani group as "a veritable arm of the ISI" and suggested that there was "credible evidence" that the ISI was behind the truck bomb attack on the NATO base Sep. 10 as well as the attack on the embassy and the International Security Assistance Force headquarters a few days later. He used oddly contorted language in characterising that evidence, saying that "the information has become more available that those attacks have been supported or even encouraged by the ISI."
That same line, which only suggested ISI "encouragement" as a possibility, was then peddled to Reuters and CNN, among other news outlets. CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr quoted a "U.S. military official" on Sep. 23 as claiming ISI "knowledge or support" in regard to Haqqani network attacks – another formula revealing the absence of hard intelligence of ISI complicity.
And Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell of Reuters reported Sep. 22 U.S. officials had conceded that information suggesting that ISI had encouraged Haqqani attacks on U.S. forces was "uncorroborated".
Absent from these reports was any indication that the U.S. intelligence community had been consulted by Mullen before making claims about "credible intelligence" of ISI complicity.
What was missing from the administration's public pronouncements and leaks was the fact that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations had been well aware that the Pakistani military had close strategic relations with the Haqqani network.
"It's not as if the United States didn't know that the Pakistani military considers the Haqqani network a strategic asset," said one knowledgeable source.
The long AfPak policy review by the Obama administration in 2009 was based on the knowledge that the Pakistani government was unlikely to give up its support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban Quetta Shura.
On November 29, 2009, the day Obama made his final decision to support an increase of more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, his Afghanistan war adviser, Gen. Douglas Lute, warned him that Pakistan's policy of support for the Haqqani network and other insurgents was one of four key factors that created a serious risk of policy failure in Afghanistan, according to Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars".
Even those who had held out hope in the past that pressure on Pakistan could lead to change in its relationship with the Haqqani group have now given up on that possibility. The New York Times reported Saturday that officials who once believed Washington could manipulate the Pakistani military to end its support for the Haqqani group "through cajoling and large cash payments" were now convinced that Pakistan would not change its policy as long as it feels threatened by Indian power.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.