ISLAMABAD: Grinning for the camera, the suicide bomber fondly patted his truckload of explosives. “We will defeat these crusader pigs as they have invaded our land,” he declared as he revved the engine.
The camera followed the truck to an American base in southern Afghanistan, where it exploded with a tangerine dust-framed fireball that punched a hole in the perimeter wall. Other suicide bombers leapt from a second vehicle and swarmed through the breach. The crackle and boom of violence filled the air.
The video, documenting a June 1 assault on Camp Salerno near the border with Pakistan, was released in the past week as a publicity blitz by the group behind the attack: the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate whose leaders shelter in Pakistan, said a report published in New York Times.
Even as the United States begins a large-scale troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Salerno attack, acknowledged at the time only in terse official statements, and others like it have cemented the Haqqani network’s standing as the most ominous threat to the fragile American-Pakistani relationship, officials from both countries say.
The two countries are just getting back on track, after months of grueling negotiations that finally reopened NATO supply routes through Pakistan. Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Zahir ul-Islam, arrived in Washington for talks with the Central Intelligence Agency, in an early sign of a new reconciliation.
But the relationship still has a tinderbox quality, riven by differences over C.I.A. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the Afghan war and, most contentiously, the Haqqani network. The arguments are well worn: American officials say the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency is covertly aiding the insurgents; Pakistani officials deny the accusation and contend the Obama administration is deflecting attention from its own failings in Afghanistan.
But a new boldness from the Haqqanis that aims at mass American casualties, combined with simmering political tension, has reduced the room for ambiguity between the two countries. Inside the administration, it is a commonly held view that the United States is “one major attack” away from unilateral action against Pakistan — diplomatically or perhaps even militarily, one senior official said.
“If 50 U.S. troops were blown to smithereens by the Haqqanis, or they penetrated the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and killed several diplomats — that would be the game changer,” he said.
American officials recently considered what that could mean. Days after the Salerno attack, the White House held a series of interagency meetings to weigh its options in the event of a major success by the Haqqanis against American troops.
Salerno had come uncomfortably close. Although just two Americans were killed, the attackers had penetrated the defenses of a major base to within yards of a dining hall used by hundreds of soldiers.
The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, according to a senior official who was briefed on the deliberations — everything from withdrawing the Islamabad ambassador, to a flurry of intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt, to American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the same area.
“We looked at the A to Z of how to get the Pakistanis’ attention,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as did other American and Pakistani officials interviewed about the issue.
Yet there were no easy answers. Officials concluded that most options ran the risk of setting off a wider conflict with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military. “It came down to the fact that there wasn’t much we could do,” the official said. Other senior officials confirmed the broad details of his account; many noted that most contingency plans are never transformed into actions.
At the heart of the conundrum is the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, and its new chief, General Islam.
He is a largely unknown quantity in Washington, and much of this week’s trip is likely to focus on relationship building with American officials, including the director of the C.I.A., David H. Petraeus. But the tone has already been set by Congress: in the past month, both the House and the Senate have passed bills that urge Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to designate the Haqqani network a “foreign terrorist organization.”
“The Haqqani network is engaged in a reign of terror,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Now is the time for action, not simply paperwork and talk.”