ISLAMABAD — U.S. accusations that Pakistan is supporting Afghan insurgents have triggered a nationalist backlash and whipped up media fears of an American invasion, drowning out any discussion over the army's long use of jihadi groups as deadly proxies in the region.
In the process, Adm. Mike Mullen's allegations that Pakistan's spy agency is effectively sponsoring terrorism across the border have led Pakistan, a country divided along political and regional lines, to unite against a common enemy: the United States.
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which officials on both sides had said less than a month ago was improving after strains caused by the unilateral U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, has now dipped to a new all-time low.
Limited room to act
The reaction shows the problem facing the United States as it presses Pakistan for action: Strong statements in Washington provoke a negative public response that makes it more difficult for the army to act against the militants — even if it decided it was in the country's interest to do so.
Pakistan's mostly conservative populace is deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions a decade after Washington forged an alliance with Islamabad. Many people here believe the United States wants to break up Pakistan and take its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and America is very unpopular throughout the country.Story: As tensions rise, Pakistan warns US: 'You will lose an ally'
By contrast, Pakistanis lack unity against Islamic militants. Politicians and media commentators are often ambiguous in their criticism of the Pakistani Taliban, despite its carrying out near weekly bombings in Pakistan over the past four years.
One small private television channel has aired an advertisement that features images of Mullen, America's top military officer, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta along with scenes of the Pakistani army fighting and raising the country's flag.
Each time the Americans appear, a shrill voice sings: "Enemies, you have challenged a nation which has a growing knowledge of the Quran and the support from Allah. Our task in this world is to eliminate the name of the killers!"
Firestorm over Mullen's comments
Mullen's comments on Capitol Hill last week set off the storm.
He said the Haqqani network, the most deadly and organized force fighting American troops in Afghanistan, was a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's premier spy agency, the strongest public statement yet by U.S. officials on Pakistan's long suspected duplicity.
Calls from American lawmakers to cut or limit aid and to consider expanding U.S. military action inside Pakistan have further inflamed discussions and media frenzy in Pakistan, prompting headlines like "When will US attack?"
Pakistan's Senate Standing Committee on Defense has said that any attack on Pakistan would be met with a "befitting response," NBC News' Amna Nawaz reported from Islamabad.
Most analysts view that scenario as highly unlikely because of the risks it entails for U.S. interests in the region. But that has not quelled tensions in Pakistan.
The head of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, dismissed Mullen's comments as "very unfortunate and not based on facts." Pakistan's foreign minister accused Washington of making Pakistan its "scapegoat" for its own lack of success in Afghanistan.
Frantic U.S. effort
In recent days, the United States has launched a frantic diplomatic effort to calm the waters, withAmerican officials meeting with Pakistan's military and government leaders.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman, took to the airwaves Wednesday night to make his case to the Pakistani people.
In an interview with Pakistan's Express News channel, Grossman stressed the need for the two countries to continue "work together" against the "common threat" of terrorism.
"This is not about ending relationships or moving away from relationships, rupturing relationships," Grossman told Express News. "It's about continued engagement in the relationship."
On Thursday, the leaders of Pakistan's feuding political parties will put aside their differences to sit under one roof to discuss the issue. In announcing the meeting, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the lawmakers will discuss "the security situation in the wake of threats emanating from outside the country."
The Sunni Ittehad Council, an organization representing the country's Barelvi sect, often referred to as the most moderate among Pakistani Muslims, issued a statement saying it was obligatory on all Muslims to wage jihad against the United States if it attacked Pakistan.Story: Pakistanis tied to 2007 border ambush on Americans
"The Pakistani government and the armed forces should start preparing to counter any possible American attack as Islamic law suggests 'keeping the horses ready' to counter any sort of foreign aggression," the statement said.
There have been a few small street protests since Mullen's comments, but nothing major.
In some respects, the situation mirrors the atmosphere after the May 2 American helicopter raid on bin Laden, which was carried out without the knowledge of the Pakistani army. There was outrage then over the infringement of the country's sovereignty by the United States, but little on how bin Laden had been living in the army town of Abbottabad for so long.Story: Pakistan frees bin Laden bodyguard
Now, the focus is on Pakistan's public humiliation at the hands of a supposed ally — and the threat of American action.
Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan was already rife and growing, following the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by CIA operatives in Lahore in January and the raid on bin Laden. Both events were portrayed here as further evidence of the malign intentions of the United States.
'We are not mercenaries'
But the way forward for Washington and Islamabad as allies was not immediately clear.
At the heart of current tensions is the U.S. request for Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network, believed to be operating from its tribal areas.
Besides being reluctant to act against a group that many military and intelligence officials here do not believe poses an imminent threat to the Pakistani state, the Pakistani Army — which suffered a massive blow to its credibility and reputation after the bin Laden raid — is fighting the perception that it is simply doing Washington’s bidding in its operations against militant groups.
One senior military official, speaking anonymously since he is not authorized to grant interviews, told NBC News that public U.S. pressure for Pakistan to act only undermines Pakistan's ability to actually do so.
"This cannot work this way," said the official. "We are not mercenaries."
NBC News' Amna Nawaz in Islamabad and The Associated Press contributed to this report.