PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // American efforts to engage in peace talks with insurgents in Afghanistan mean Washington can no longer expect Pakistan to attack all the militant factions on its side of the border, some of whom Islamabad is also reaching out to, said the commander of Pakistan's forces along the frontier.
In a sign of the bad blood between Washington and Islamabad, Lt Gen Khalid Rabbani also accused the US of seeking to make Pakistan a scapegoat for its failure to beat the insurgency in Afghanistan.
US and Nato officials say Pakistani tolerance of - or support for - Afghan factions operating on its soil is hobbling efforts to end the resistance to the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. The US wants Pakistan to launch an offensive or otherwise disrupt militant groups in North Waziristan, the stronghold for multiple insurgent networks on the border.
"Why do they raise their fingers toward Pakistan? It is shifting the blame to others," Gen Rabbani said in his offices in a highly secure section of the main northwestern city of Peshawar.
"Is Afghanistan free of Taliban? It has hundreds of thousands of them."
Gen Rabbani was interviewed yesterday, two days after militants in North Waziristan beheaded 13 Pakistani soldiers, including four that it captured when Pakistani troops raided a militant hideout.
The killings highlighted the military's dilemma in dealing with an area used by both the country's fiercest enemies, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Afghan and Pakistani militants who are battling US-led forces in Afghanistan, but who the army believes do not pose a direct threat to Islamabad.
One powerful faction in North Waziristan is led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who is believed to have signed a non-aggression pact with the government but still funnels fighters into Afghanistan. Gen Rabbani defended the government's dealings with Mr Bahadur, saying "at the moment he seems to be trying to keep himself out of the trouble".
Washington has urged Pakistan to attack all the militants along the border, because it believes they are all equally dangerous.
Gen Rabbani said US and Nato were in contact with insurgents in Afghanistan to try to "co-opt them into the peace process".
"Similar things are true on this side of the border as well," he said. "Is it forbidden for us to do the same?"
The Pakistani army has launched anti-militant operations in six of the seven tribal regions along the Afghanistan border since 2004, retaking parts of the mountainous area and losing hundreds of soldiers in the attacks. But like the US-led forces, Pakistani forces have had trouble holding on the territory and attacks continue to roil the region.
Privately, some US officials agree with Pakistan's stated reason that it lacks the soldiers to move into North Waziristan and defeat the around 8,000 militants. But others in Congress and the army accuse Pakistan of keeping the insurgents as proxies to influence events in Afghanistan, especially the Haqqani network whose leadership is believed to be based in North Waziristan.
Repeating assurances by other top army officers, Gen Rabbani said several times that the army would launch operations in North Waziristan. But he did not say when this would happen, nor whether it would target all factions there.
"Something has to be done, and it's in the offing," said Gen Rabbani, who commands more than 150,000 soldiers and paramilitary forces in the rugged north-west.
"North Waziristan is the only region we haven't cleared. It should be done as early as possible."
US officials have been hoping to see the army move into North Waziristan since 2010, but now believe it is unlikely before 2014, when Washington is committed to bringing most of its soldiers home.
The unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year hurt the relationship between the two countries. US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghanistan border in November effectively ended cooperation between the two forces. Islamabad ordered the closure of US and Nato supply lines.
Washington wants to rebuild ties with the country, but has had little success so far.
* The Associated Press