RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – Bristling at criticism from Washington, Pakistan's army dismissed U.S. pressure to open a front against Afghan militants operating on its territory, saying it was stretched to the limit in a bloody war against its own Taliban.
The disagreement is an early sign of the problems ahead in Pakistan for the Obama administration, which desperately needs the country's help against militants sheltering along its northwestern border if its new strategy to turn around the Afghan war is going to succeed.
Also a concern is the growing weakness of the democratically elected leader, President Asif Ali Zardari, an unpopular U.S. ally in a country that has spent about half its history under military rule. A court ruling Wednesday struck down a graft amnesty, raising the possibility of legal challenges to his rule.
In an interview Thursday in Rawalpindi, headquarters of the Pakistani army and scene of several recent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, army spokesman Brig. Syed Azmat Ali denied allegations it was sheltering Afghan Taliban fighters.
He said the army — which still deploys most of its troops along the eastern border facing the country's traditional enemy, India — had to go "step by step" while clearing militants from the northwestern tribal regions, which have never been under government control.
"We can't start fighting in North Waziristan while we are in every agency in the tribal area fighting the Taliban there," he said.
Ali repeated frequently aired complaints among Pakistani leaders that U.S. and NATO forces were not doing enough to stop militants and weapons crossing from over the porous Afghan border into Pakistan — an echo of American claims that Pakistan does not do enough to stop infiltration the other way.
He said Pakistan recovered "tons and tons" of weapons and ammunition from Taliban chased from their headquarters in South Waziristan. He said the weapons, the majority of which were Russian-made, came from Afghanistan.
"We're tired of this mistrust and this questioning of our commitment and of our sincerity," Ali said, adding that 2,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed fighting the Taliban since 2001.
Local militants grouped under the Pakistani Taliban banner have launched an onslaught of attacks against Pakistani security forces and other targets since October, when the army moved into their South Waziristan stronghold with some 30,000 troops.
But in the neighboring North Waziristan region, Taliban militants who are fighting against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have been largely untouched by the army since 2001, when they fled to the region to escape the American-led invasion.
Critics say Pakistan's reluctance to go after the Afghan Taliban and particularly the so-called Haqqani network, led by longtime resistance fighter and former U.S. ally Jalaluddin Haqqani, is part of a longer-term strategy to keep them as potential allies when U.S. and NATO troops pull out of Afghanistan.
Some analysts say Obama's deadline of 2011 for the start of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will further discourage Pakistan from waging war against the Afghan Taliban.
"The Pakistanis don't see the Afghan Taliban and allied Haqqani network as a clear and present danger," said Brian Glyn Williams, a terrorism expert at University of Massachusetts.
"For this reason the Pakistanis are unwilling to take on the Afghan Taliban in a proxy war for their fickle U.S. allies," he said. "They have already lost some 2,000 of their own troops fighting the Pakistani Taliban in what many Pakistanis see as a surrogate war against fellow Pakistanis on behalf of the U.S. And should the U.S. withdraw troops one day and the Taliban sweep into power, the Pakistanis don't want to have a record of having antagonized them."
In his speech announcing the deployment of 30,000 new troops in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said Taliban sanctuaries based in Pakistan "cannot be tolerated." Since then, several U.S military leaders have visited Pakistan to press for more action.
Although anti-American sentiment runs deep here, in recent months public opinion has swung behind the military in its battle against insurgents. That could change if the army brass is seen to be fighting on the basis of U.S. orders.