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 policy making 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 told IPS.
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 mujahedeen 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 on Sept. 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 on Sept. 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 Sept. 13 to highlight the claim that the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, was somehow complicit in the recent Haqqani group attacks.
On Sept. 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 on Sept. 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.