ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Threats of U.S. military action inside Pakistan to counter Al Qaeda militants have highlighted the shaky relationship between these two key players in the war on terror and could escalate anti-American sentiments in this Islamic nation.
President Bush said this week that he would "absolutely" order military operations inside Pakistan if Usama bin Laden or other top terrorists were found to be hiding here.
Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, also said the United States had threatened to blow his Islamic nation "back to the Stone Age" if he didn't switch his support from Afghanistan's pro-Al Qaeda Taliban regime to the American-led war on terror following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"These comments only expose how tenuous and fragile Pakistan's relationship is with the United States," Pakistani analyst and retired army general Talat Masood said on Friday. "They prove a lot more has to be done to establish a relationship on a much more solid foundation."
Bush, who meets Musharraf on Friday at the White House, has repeatedly praised Pakistan for arresting hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives inside this South Asian nation, the world's second-biggest Islamic country with a population of 160 million.
But the United States has also said Pakistan can do more to prevent militants crossing from its tribal regions into Afghanistan, where Taliban-fanned violence has reached its deadliest proportions since the American-led invasion that toppled the hard-line regime.
On Thursday, Pakistan's government vowed to not let foreign forces enter its territory, a day after Bush told a major news network he would order American military action inside this Islamic nation if actionable intelligence surfaced that bin Laden was hiding here.
Bin Laden's whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to be hiding along the porous Pakistani-Afghan frontier, where about 100,000 Pakistani, U.S. and Afghan forces are hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Pakistan had long supported the Taliban, which came to power following the 1992-96 civil war in Afghanistan that killed more than 50,000 in the capital, Kabul, alone. But the Taliban's harboring of bin Laden and his Al Qaeda training camps made it the target of U.S. anger after the attacks in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
Musharraf told CBS that Richard Armitage, the then deputy secretary of state, told Pakistan's intelligence director that the United States could attack if the South Asian nation did not back the war on terror.
"The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, 'Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,"' Musharraf told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview to air Sunday.
Musharraf said the remark was insulting, but said he reacted responsibly. "One has to think and take actions in the interests of the nation and that is what I did," he said.
The White House and State Department declined to comment. Armitage told a major news network he never threatened to bomb Pakistan but that he delivered a tough message to the Muslim nation that it was either "with us or against us."
A spokesman for Pakistan's hard-line opposition Islamic coalition Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, also called MMA, said Musharraf's revelation would anger Pakistani people, who have long believed that they were forced "at gun point" into supporting the war on terror.
"The temperature and anger will rise among Pakistanis because they will see that the Americans do not want dialogue or communication, but are instead exploiting a situation and compelling Musharraf to support them," said the MMA's Ameer ul-Azeem.
Pakistani officials also accuse Washington of bias toward its nuclear rival, India, by not giving Islamabad the same atomic energy assistance.
Analysts say the United States remains wary of sharing nuclear technology with Pakistan in the light of the scandal surrounding A.Q. Khan, the father of this country's atomic program who also led a black market that delivered nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea.
"The Americans have said on a number of occasions that India is a reliable partner (in terms of atomic energy) and Pakistan is not reliable," said Khalid Mahmood, a senior research fellow at Islamabad's Institute of Regional Studies.
Musharraf told CBS that his government had no knowledge of Khan's activities and said he was embarrassed in 2003 by then-CIA Director George Tenet, who showed the Pakistani president centrifuge designs with Pakistani signatures that Khan had passed to Iran and North Korea.
"It was the most embarrassing moment," Musharraf said. "(Khan) gave them centrifuge designs. He gave them centrifuge parts. He gave them centrifuges."
Centrifuges are vital components of the uranium enrichment process, which can be used to generate electricity or to create an atomic weapon.
Khan has been under house arrest since Musharraf pardoned him in 2004. Many Pakistanis regard Khan as a national hero for leading development of its nuclear weapons program, which serves as a deterrent to rival India.