Pakistan’s powerful army has become enraged after a secret memo indicated President Asif Ali Zardari’s government asked for U.S. help to prevent a military coup following the Navy SEAL raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden. (ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

A growing storm over a confidential memo is laying bare the profound division between Pakistan’s powerful army and its civilian government, and the nation’s relationship with the United States is again at the center of the gulf.

At issue are allegations that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari asked for U.S. help to prevent a military coup after the Navy SEAL raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The claim is thought to have enraged Pakistan’s army, and the resulting controversy prompted Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, to offer his resignation this week.

Zardari’s government has nominally been leading Pakistan since 2008. But real power remains in the hands of the military, which has ruled the South Asian nation for half its 64-year existence and was livid after the U.S. operation against bin Laden. Though both the army and the civilian government receive billions of dollars in American assistance, the military views the United States, and its support for Zardari’s unpopular administration, with deep distrust.

That attitude is widespread in Pakistan, where patriotism is equated with support for the military and the United States is often seen more as bully than friend.

Against that backdrop, a column published last month in the Financial Times has proved explosive. In it, Pakistani American businessman Mansoor Ijaz asserted that a senior Pakistani diplomat — whom he identified Thursday as Haqqani — asked him to help relay a request to the then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, to stop the military from staging a coup.

The memo, a copy of which was provided by Ijaz to The Washington Post, warns that a military takeover would result in “potentially the platform for far more rapid spread of al Qaeda’s brand of fanaticism and terror.” The upheaval in the wake of the bin Laden killing, it said, provided “a unique window of opportunity” for “civilians to gain the upper hand over army and intelligence directorates.”

It said that in exchange for U.S. “direct intervention” to convey a strong no-coup message to Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, leader of Pakistan’s military, a newly appointed civilian national security team would shepherd an independent investigation of the bin Laden matter and terminate any “active service officers” found to have been complicit in concealing the al-Qaeda leader.

Pakistan, it said, would also move to hand over all remaining al-Qaeda leaders on its soil, as well as Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani insurgent network. Alternatively, it could give “U.S. military forces a ‘green light’ to conduct the necessary operations to capture or kill them on Pakistani soil,” the memo said.

It said the civilian government would eliminate “Section S” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, a unit that handles relations with insurgent groups; bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai; and implement new measures to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The memo was unsigned but said it was being submitted by “the members of the new national security team who will be inducted by the President of Pakistan with your support in this undertaking.” Ijaz said the names included Husain Haqqani and his two predecessors as ambassador, both retired military officers. Ijaz said the names were given orally to Mullen by the emissary who delivered the memo. Ijaz did not name the emissary.

In an e-mail with the attached document sent to the intermediary May 11, the day of the delivery to Mullen, Ijaz wrote that it “has the support of the President of Pakistan.”

Nearly two weeks after the Ijaz column was published, the Pakistani government dismissed the account as “fictitious,” even as Pakistani media speculated that Haqqani was the diplomat in question and Zardari summoned Haqqani home for consultations. But this week, a Mullen spokesman confirmed to Foreign Policy magazine that he had received the memo, although the spokesman said it was not acted on or taken seriously.

Haqqani subsequently acknowledged speaking regularly to Ijaz but said the e-mail and text messages Ijaz has released were misleading and did not indicate that the diplomat helped draft the memo or authorized its delivery.

“I fail to understand why Mr. Ijaz claims on the one hand to have helped the civilian government by delivering his memo and on the other insists on trying to destroy democracy by driving a wedge between elected civilians and the military in Pakistan with his persistent claims,” Haqqani said in a statement Thursday.

A Pakistani military intelligence official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Kayani had demanded that Zardari summon Haqqani.

Analysts say the military is especially skeptical of Haqqani, who is viewed in Washington as a shrewd and effective envoy and is known in Pakistan for his “principled opposition to military dominance over civilian affairs,” according to an editorial in the Express-Tribune, an English-language daily. Pakistani intelligence is widely thought to have circulated negative reports about Haqqani in the past.

As the saga escalated Thursday, many in Pakistan’s media began predicting that Zardari would sacrifice Haqqani. Even commentators sympathetic to him and the government said that asking for U.S. assistance in forestalling a coup would be an unpardonable offense. The Express-Tribune editorial treated Haqqani’s role as a disappointing fact, referring to it as “galling” and saying that the controversy will only “strengthen the military’s hand in castigating the civilian government as sell-outs to the Americans.”

DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.