ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's powerful security establishment, reeling from the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden and a series of other humiliating setbacks, is facing threats to its authority not felt in years.
Squeezed between international pressure and strong anti-U.S. sentiment inside the country, it remains unclear, however, if the leadership in the nuclear-armed nation can or will take the "decisive steps" to fight terrorism that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for in a recent, tense visit to Islamabad.
Some commentators say Pakistan should seize the moment to make tough decisions, including ending its policy of nurturing militant groups for use as proxies against India and reducing the role of the military in governance. Most, however, doubt the current leadership will do much beyond squabble and appeal to nationalist sentiments.
"We need a change of guard, both political and military, the coming of some rebels to the fore," wrote Ayaz Amir, a columnist and lawmaker, in an op-ed that called Pakistan an "ostrich" state for its unwillingness to tackle its many problems.
While nominally under civilian rule, the country's military is still the main force in defense and foreign policy. Operating largely outside the law, it is feared and loathed, and yet respected by Pakistanis who view it as the only public institution that truly functions in the country.
But even pro-military commentators have raged against the army for its inability to detect the May 2 U.S. raid against the al-Qaida chief, not to mention its apparent blindness to bin Laden's presence in the garrison city of Abbottabad. Many army officers and soldiers have also been angered by the raid.
A 17-hour siege of a naval base in the southern city of Karachi that began on May 22 by militants further tarnished the military's image, raising questions about how the insurgents managed to evade the facility's security and whether they had inside help.
Most recently, suspicions have surfaced that the military-run spy network killed a Pakistani journalist who told friends he'd been threatened by intelligence agents. Pakistan's top spy agency took the rare step of publicly denying the charge, an indication of the pressure it is under.
Clinton and other U.S. leaders have said they have no evidence that anyone in Pakistan's top military or civil leadership knew of bin Laden's whereabouts. But they have stressed they are stilling examining material seized in the May 2 raid.
The knowledge that some evidence might yet surface and the proven willingness to act unilaterally has given Washington the upper hand in what has always been a difficult partnership. American leaders have made it clear they expect Pakistan to take more action against al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban targets inside the country.
The army has accepted U.S. demands for further access to bin Laden's compound and agreed to keep sharing intelligence. But it has also shown its anger at the bin Laden raid by demanding U.S. military trainers leave the country.
Army commanders stated this week they had no imminent plans to carry out an operation in North Waziristan, pushing back at a key U.S. demand. The tribal region is home to several militant groups who focus on attacking Western forces in Afghanistan.
The sustained Pakistani criticism of the military suggests it is unable to control the message as it did in decades past when there were fewer media outlets and much of the reporting was under state control. Even opposition parties seen as close to the military have demanded rare accountability from the generals.
"I think there has been significant permanent loss as far as the army's prestige is concerned," said Najam Sethi, the editor of prominent weekly magazine.
But Pakistani civilian leaders also have appeared unable to present a united front. Any faint hopes that the civilians would exploit the military's present vulnerability to take some power away from the generals have been largely dashed.
The reality is that even if the army is weaker than before, it is still far stronger than President Asif Ali Zardari's ruling party, which is unpopular and whose primary goal appears to be surviving in office till elections in 2013. Even the party's agreement to an independent commission to investigate the U.S. raid has run into obstacles as opposition leaders say they were not properly consulted.
Political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi said Pakistan's domestic politics were witnessing a "perfect storm" — with widespread demands for more limits on the military's power in governance. But he warned that pushing back too hard, too fast against the security establishment could backfire, noting that all it takes to get Pakistanis united behind their soldiers is a convenient conflict somewhere.
"It's a unique moment," he said. "It's probably good for Pakistan in the long run if this generic and amorphous demand for change that we're seeing articulate itself can be coherently converted into sharp public policy."
Nahal Toosi has covered Pakistan for The Associated Press since 2008.