The fragile and troubled relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is on a deep downward spiral. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Pakistan's intelligence agency had a role in several high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including the attack earlier this month on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Mullen's comments have led to sharp denials from Pakistan and increased tension between two so-called allies. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Admiral Mullen's comments made public what many officials in Washington and Afghanistan have long voiced only in private - that Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the ISI, supports insurgent groups. That includes the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous groups, based in Pakistan's tribal region. Mullen said the Haqqani Network, which launches attacks against Western troops in neighboring Afghanistan, acts as a veritable arm of the spy agency. His comments signal a more confrontational stance against Pakistan. Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Mullen's forceful language was striking in its tone and substance.

DANIEL MARKEY: And the implication is that United States government is saying with one voice that if Pakistan does not end its ties with the Haqqani Network, the U.S. will expand its unilateral actions to destroy that network, whether Pakistan likes it or not.

NORTHAM: Markey says the U.S. could expand its drone strikes in North Waziristan, where the Haqqani Network is believed to be based. But Markey says things could go further, such as launching raids using U.S. Special Forces.

MARKEY: You could see conventional forces in Afghanistan moved up to the Pakistani border to support cross-border attacks that would probably start out small but could expand. And you could see a variety of other combined efforts, which could even include a more extensive bombing campaign that went beyond the use of drones.

NORTHAM: Pakistani officials quickly denounced Mullen's comments. On Sunday, General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's army chief, called in his commanders for a special meeting to discuss the security situation. That was an unusual move, says retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

DAVID BARNO: Their media people coming out of that said that Pakistan intends to continue to defend its borders from incursions from Afghanistan. And so I think they're signaling that they're not going to tolerate any U.S. ground intervention, certainly into Pakistan.

NORTHAM: Barno says Pakistan considers any ground incursion, any raid by American Special Forces or the like, as crossing a red line. The U.S. could face a significant backlash. Among other things, Pakistan could shut down critical land and air routes needed to shuttle military supplies into Afghanistan. Still, Barno says the U.S. has to consider when it reaches a point when it has to take that risk.

BARNO: I don't think we've ruled anything out entirely. And I think there's probably a debate going on to sort out, you know, what things can be done and what lines can we cross or should we cross at this point in time.

NORTHAM: Barno says the uprooting of the Haqqani Network is part of that strategic calculation, especially as the U.S. begins winding down its operations in Afghanistan in 2014. Barno says it's clear that Washington has lost patience with Pakistan's reluctance, or inability, to go after militants on its own soil. Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, says this is probably the worst he's seen relations between the two countries in a very long time.

SHUJA NAWAZ: I see the mood darkening in Washington, and I fear that it may lead to unilateral action. But historically, whenever the U.S. has put such sharp pressure on Pakistan to do certain things on behalf of the U.S., the Pakistanis have not reacted well at all.

NORTHAM: Nawaz says the U.S. and Pakistan need some clear-headed thinking to get out of this situation because the two sides need each other - at least for the next few years. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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