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Tension, resentment could redefine US relations with Pakistan

ISLAMABAD - After a decade of diplomatic crises, see-sawing tensions, and increasing frustration on both sides, 2012 promises to mark the re-defining moment for the alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan.

The last decade has seen a growing sense of dissatisfaction in American circles at Pakistan's unwillingness or inability to tackle its extremist elements in the way the U.S. wishes, combined with deepening resentment in Pakistan about what's seen as America's "imperial" attitude.

"We are blamed for U.S. failures, all that happens in Afghanistan is attributed to Pakistan," said one Pakistani military official. "We have had enough. The U.S. should take their business elsewhere."

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

Women supporters of Pakistani political and Islamic party Jammat-e-Islami (JI), stage an anti-US protest rally in Karachi on December 20.

To that end, Pakistan recently kicked a leg out from under the American mission in neighboring Afghanistan, shutting down the NATO supply routes after a deadly cross-border attack in late November in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed at two border posts. After a year of diplomatic clashes and public tongue-lashings, it is this incident that seems to have caused the most severe rupture in relations and made the alliance much more difficult to mend.

The U.S. military investigation into the episode found that Pakistani troops had fired first, but laid blame with both sides for an inherent mistrust and subsequent miscommunications that led to the exchange of fire. The Pakistan military, which declined to participate in the American investigation, has yet to release its own detailed findings, but did issue a terse statement in response to the initial U.S. release, calling their inquiry "short on facts." 

Documents shared with NBC News from the Pakistan military's internal incident briefing show a significant divergence of narratives that could prove problematic for the two countries to ultimately reconcile. 

The U.S. report, based on an unclassified version released publicly last week, stated the Pakistan military "did not provide information identifying" the locations of the border posts that were attacked. In contrast, the Pakistani military's incident briefing concluded: "It is not possible that ISAF/NATO did not know these to be our posts." A Pakistani military official told NBC News in early December that the posts had been established "almost three months ago," and "soon after" they were established, "ISAF forces are notified through Liaison Officer at BCC [Border Coordination Center] and were provided with all necessary information."

The timeline established in the U.S. report includes the determination that the first shots were fired from Pakistan's side of the border, stating that "Machine gun and mortar fire…from the border ridge line was the catalyst for engagement." Subsequent firing by Coalition forces, the investigation found, "was executed in self defense." Pakistani officials have maintained, both in public statements and in internal military documents, that the attack "was an unprovoked act of blatant aggression."

Though cross border attacks have occurred before, the reaction by Pakistan's establishment to this latest attack has been much more fierce than in years past -- a function, some analysts say, of the higher death toll, as well as the country's current state of affairs. 

Defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of "Military Inc.", believes Pakistan's own evolution over the last decade contributed to its response.

"It no longer sees itself as this tiny, timid country, always on the defensive," said Siddiqa. "It's a country which has a medium-sized military power, nuclear weapons, and the vanity which comes with having this non-conventional defense. So it wants to be taken more seriously. And it doesn't want to compromise on that."

The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, insists that despite the tensions, the lines of communication "at the highest civilian and military levels" remain open. 

"General Dempsey has spoken with General Kayani. General Mattis has spoken with Kayani. I have met with Foreign Minister Khar," said Munter. "We are committed to our relationship." 

Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

That relationship, according to Pakistani military and government officials, will have to take on a different form in the year ahead.

"The arrangement will now be formalized and reduced to writing," said a Pakistani government official. "Even if the Government was to restore some concessions, the Army will not forget the spilling of blood."

Pakistan's Parliamentary Committee on National Security is said to be reviewing the US-Pakistan relationship and is preparing recommendations to present to the government. Back-channel negotiations are reportedly ongoing at all levels, but so far, the supply lines remain closed and the public sentiment remains strongly anti-American. 

Siddiqa believes the longer this continues, the more difficult it will be to bring on board the general population with any attempt to reconcile political and military relations. 

"There is this narrative that's been built, vis-a-vis the U.S. in the past four or five years," said Siddiqa. "It's been so negative, that socially, it will be difficult to build back up that relationship."

In these early days of the new year, there is not yet a clear indication of how and when that rebuilding will occur. 

"We could not be good allies," said one Pakistani military official. "At least let us be better strangers."