RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) -- In what could be the biggest change in a decade in a relationship that has been a mainstay of U.S. military and counterterrorism policy since the 9/11 terror attacks, the United States and Pakistan are lowering expectations for what the two nations will do together and planning for a period of more limited contact.
The change described by both Pakistani and U.S. officials follows a series of diplomatic crises over the past year that strained an already difficult partnership based around the U.S. goal of stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a reduction in Islamic-inspired terrorism.
For Pakistan, cooperation on that agenda was rewarded with billions in financial aid. The change means less cooperation with Washington and a willingness to swear off some aid that often made Pakistan feel too dependent, and too pushed around.
For the United States, scaling down an expensive military and economic program that has not met expectations could come at the cost of less Pakistani help in ending the war in next-door Afghanistan.
Both U.S. and Pakistani officials said the November killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike and Washington's refusal to outright apologize for the deaths has been a game changer in a relationship characterized by mistrust and mutual acrimony.
In the United States, civilian and military officials have called the friendly fire incident a tragedy caused by mistakes on both sides, but insist that Pakistan fired first. Pakistan denies that, and has called the incident an unprovoked attack.
Pakistan's loudly angry reaction has, if anything, hardened attitudes in Congress and elsewhere that Islamabad is untrustworthy or ungrateful.
A senior Obama administration official conceded that the deaths made every aspect of U.S. cooperation with Pakistan more difficult, and that the distance Pakistan has imposed may continue indefinitely. The official, like most others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing discussions.
Pakistan has already stopped billing the United States for its anti-terror war expenses under the 10-year-old Coalition Support Fund, set up by Washington after the 9/11 attacks to reimburse its many allies for their military expenses fighting terrorists worldwide and touted by the U.S. as a success story.
"From here on in we want a very formal, business- like relationship. The lines will be drawn. There will be no more of the free run of the past, no more interpretation of rules. We want it very formal with agreed upon limits," military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press in an interview in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
Pakistan will further reduce the number of U.S. military people in Pakistan, limit military exchanges with the United States and rekindle its relationship with neighbors, such as China, which has been a more reliable ally according to Islamabad. Earlier this year Pakistan signed a deal with China for 50 JF-17 aircraft with sophisticated avionics, compared by some, who are familiar with military equipment, to the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.
Pakistan retaliated for the friendly fire deaths by shutting down NATO's supply routes to Afghanistan and kicked the U.S. out of an air base it used to facilitate drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal belt. Both U.S. and Pakistani officials expect more fallout, most likely in the form of additional tolls or taxes on NATO supplies into Afghanistan through Pakistan. There could also be charges for use of Pakistani airspace, said some officials in Pakistan.
Pakistan also asked the U.S. not to send any high-level visitors to Pakistan for some time, the U.S. official said. After past crises, including the flare-up of anti-U.S. fervor following the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in May, Pakistan had accepted top-level U.S. officials for a public peace-making session rather quickly. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the then- top U.S. military official visited Pakistan less than a month after the bin Laden raid, and pledged continued cooperation on several fronts.
U.S. officials said they would like to mend fences quickly, but the senior administration official and others said they assume there will be less contact, fewer high-profile joint projects and fewer American government employees living and working in Pakistan.
Since 2001, the U.S. has pumped aid to the country under both Republican and Democratic administrations with the expectation that Pakistan will be a bulwark against the spread of Islamic terrorism. Anti-American sentiment has only grown, and spiked in 2011. In Pakistan, both a military dictatorship and the elected civilian government that followed it have accepted the aid and pledged cooperation against terrorism and on other fronts.
The mutual conclusion that each side can live with a more limited relationship comes at a troubling time for Washington. It has suspended drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas since the NATO bombings, yet the unmanned drone is considered by many who are familiar with the conflict to be one of the most effective weapons against insurgents hiding in Pakistan's tribal regions.
With the clock ticking until its combat withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2015, Washington's battlefield strategy is to break the momentum of the Taliban in order to improve its negotiating position at the table. Pakistan is seen as crucial to the success of this effort.
Washington needs Pakistani help to bring the Taliban to the table. Senior Taliban leaders live in Pakistan, and mid- and low-level fighters who target U.S. troops in Afghanistan slip across the Pakistan border to regroup and rearm.
The United States has long pressed Pakistan to flush insurgents out of tribal safe havens along the border, with minimal success. While the Pakistan army denies giving direct aid to Taliban groups, particularly the Haqqani network, it also says it won't launch an offensive to kick them out.
With more than 3,000 Pakistani soldiers killed and thousands more injured in border fights with militants as part of the anti-terror war, Abbas said the Pakistan military has grown weary of Washington's repeated calls for Pakistan to do more.
Meanwhile some U.S. politicians are calling for an aid cut off to Pakistan, arguing that the U.S. has little to show for billions sent to Pakistan over the past decade. A total aid cutoff is extremely unlikely, but Congress has already trimmed back the Obama administration's latest request and is expected to demand less generosity and more strings over the coming year.
The U.S. official said the current political standoff has made the already difficult White House argument to Congress even harder to make. That argument basically holds that because of its geographic location, prominence in the Islamic world, past willingness to hunt terrorists and its nuclear weapons, Pakistan is a partner the U.S. may not fully trust but cannot afford to lose.
Pakistani military officials said a U.S. aid cutoff would suspend delivery next year of six refitted F-16 aircraft. Currently Pakistan currently has 47 F-16s, a small percentage of a fighter wing that also includes Chinese and European-made jets.
Abbas said U.S. cash payments, made through the Coalition Support Fund, have been erratic. In the last 10 years Pakistan's army has seen only $1.8 billion of $8.6 billion in CSF funds. The rest of the money was siphoned off by the military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf to finance subsidies and prop up his government.
Currently the U.S. is withholding another $600 million in CSF that was promised last year.
"The equipment we have been getting from America over the last five years has been almost a trickle," said former national security advisor retired Gen. Mahmud Durrani.
He complained of "second-hand helicopters that were badly refitted."
Less aid might propel Pakistan toward greater financial independence, he added.
"If the money stops we can get our act together and manage. It is not the first time that American money has dried up and maybe we need to go cold turkey. Maybe in the long term we will be saying, "Thank God this happened."'
Kathy Gannon is The AP Special Regional Correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be reached at www.twitter.com/kathygannon .
Gearan reported from Washington.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)