ISLAMABAD // A decision by the United States to partially suspend military aid could force Pakistan to put counterterrorism operations in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan on hold, the Pakistani defence minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, said this week.
The US on Monday announced it would withhold US$800 million (Dh2.94 billion) out of $2.7bn in annual security assistance to Pakistan.
"If Americans refuse to give us money , I think the next step is that the government or the armed forces will be moving from the border areas," Mr Mukhtar said in an interview on Tuesday with Express 24/7, an English-language cable news network.
"We cannot afford to keep military out in the mountains for such a long period."
Pakistan has deployed about 140,000 troops, or about a quarter of its standing army, in the north-west tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan.
The withheld US money includes US$300m that would have reimbursed Pakistan for the cost of its counterterrorist operations.
Pakistan's army commanders promised during a meeting in Rawalpindi on Tuesday to continue counterterrorist operations in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan using their own resources.
The army has ruled the country for half its 64-year history and maintains a stranglehold on defence and foreign policy.
Security expenditure accounts for about one third of Pakistan's annual budget.
Tensions between the US and Pakistan have been building since a covert US military operation killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2. The location of the Al Qaeda chief's residence, next to a military academy, sparked international suspicions about possible connivance by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
Pakistan was outraged by the US decision not to share intelligence of bin Laden's whereabouts and saw the operation as a violation of its sovereignty.
Subsequent promises by Barack Obama, the US president, to launch operations against any other terrorist targets found in Pakistan has sparked widespread fears that American troops could attack militants based in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
Bilateral acrimony has been heightened by the partial aid suspension, but it would not result in a breakdown of ties between the allies, officials said.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, told NBC News on Tuesday: "We're fighting Al Qaeda in their country. Strategically, they're an important country, particularly because they have nuclear arms. So for all those reasons, we've got to maintain the relationship."
The head of the ISI, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, left for Washington yesterday for a one-day meeting on intelligence co-operation, a spokesman for the Pakistani military said.
US officials said they still plan to disburse 60 per cent of its budgeted security assistance to Pakistan, while funding for civil projects has been unaffected by the suspension.
Mr Panetta said military aid had been partially suspended because Pakistan was reluctant to pursue Al Qaeda and Afghan militant factions.
"We have to show that this is a two-way street, not just a one-way street. They have some obligation," he said.
"They've got to help us be able to go after some of the targets we've assigned them, they've got to be able to give us their co-operation."
Although Mr Panetta did not identify the targets, he said last week the new Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was based in Pakistan's tribal regions, and called on Pakistan to act against him.
The Pakistani military responded by asking the US to share intelligence about Al Zawahiri's whereabouts.
US officials have also frequently complained that the ISI covertly aids the Haqqani Network, an Al Qaeda ally that regularly launches attacks against US-led forces in eastern provinces of Afghanistan from its bases in Pakistan's North and South Waziristan.
Nato officials said last week the focus of operations was shifting from the southern Afghan provinces, where the Taliban is influential, to Haqqani strongholds of Kunar and Nuristan provinces, which neighbour Pakistan's tribal regions.
The US has repeatedly urged Pakistan to launch a counterterrorism operation in North Waziristan against the Haqqanis.
So far, Pakistan has told the US that such an operation would only happen when forces deployed against militants in other tribal regions become available.
Pakistani troops are currently involved in operations in Bajaur, Kurram and Mohmand.
However, military officers based in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, said a decisive military operation in the Waziristans and neighbouring Orakzai, irrespective of groupings, was imminent.
One officer said the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan insurgents, Hakimullah Mehsud, "is going to be killed for sure".
"We won't spare anybody, including the Haqqanis. Too many fingers are being pointed at Pakistan, and that has to end," said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The growing military mobilisation in the region prompted the leaders of the Haqqani Network, Jalal-ud-Din Haqqani and his son, Siraj-ud-Din, to leave North Waziristan on July 2, the officer and sources in the network said.
They were believed to have travelled to Kunar in Afghanistan, the network sources said.