The Obama administration delivered a blunt warning Thursday that the United States will do what it must to go after militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whether Pakistan helps or not.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading an unusually large US delegation to Pakistan for two days of talks with civilian and military leaders who have resisted previous demands to take a harder tack against militants who attack US soldiers and interests in Afghanistan. The large US contingent is meant to display unity among the various US agencies with an interest in Pakistan, including the CIA, the military and the state department.
CIA chief David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey, among others, joined Clinton, who said the team would “push Pakistan very hard.”
Clinton arrived in Islamabad on Thursday from Afghanistan, where she pointedly told Pakistan that it must be part of the solution to the Afghan conflict. She says the US expects the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services to take the lead in fighting Pakistan-based militants and also in encouraging Afghan militants to reconcile with Afghan society.
US officials said the visit carries a combined message of support and pressure. Meetings that also include top state department and White House officials are expected to focus on the recurrent US demand that Pakistan launch its own offensive against a lethal Taliban affiliate known as the Haqqani network. It operates on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and US officials claim Pakistan either tolerates or supports the group’s activities.
US military leaders have already told the Pakistanis that if Islamabad does not act against the Haqqanis, the US will.
With 170,000 soldiers deployed to its eastern border with Afghanistan and more than 3,000 soldiers killed in battles with militants, Pakistan bristles at US criticism that is has not done enough or that it plays a double game by fighting militants in some areas and supporting them in others where they might be useful proxies in a future conflict with India.
A new offensive unleashed in recent days by the US-led coalition against the Haqqani network in Afghanistan has added a sense of urgency to the talks in Pakistan.
Gen John Allen, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, described the offensive during an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press as a “high intensity sensitive operation. ” He would not give a precise location or other details.
For more than three decades the Haqqani network, led by patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani, has maintained a headquarters in Pakistan’s Miran Shah district of North Waziristan. The United States has had some recent successes killing at least two top Haqqani commanders in drone attacks.
Senior US officials said the CIA was given a clearer green light to go after the Taliban affiliate in its Pakistani stronghold after the attack on a military base in Wardak, Afghanistan that wounded 77 American soldiers. The 10 September attack, blamed on the Haqqanis, helped convince Clinton that the US should take decisive action against the network, two officials said.
Clinton and other US officials had previously worried that CIA pressure on the network, primarily through drone strikes, would make its leaders less likely to support peace efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Washington has had contact with some within the Haqqani network, including Ibrahim Haqqani, the brother of Jalaluddin, according to several Afghan and US officials.
That same worry has held up an expected US announcement that the Haqqani network will be placed on a list of terror groups subject to US punishment. That move is now expected within a few weeks, two officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are not complete.
The US and Nato consider the Taliban affiliate to be the single greatest enemy in Afghanistan, and accuse Pakistan of providing the group safe havens. There are also recent allegations that Pakistan has sent rocket fire into Afghanistan to provide cover for insurgents crossing the border.
Pakistan has denied aiding the Haqqanis, and an increasingly angry Pakistani military has refused to carry out an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region, saying it would unleash a tribal-wide war that Pakistan could not contain.
US officials in Washington and elsewhere say the broader message for the meeting is that the US still wants to have a strategic relationship with Pakistan. The gathering is also meant to dispel any mixed messages from US officials.
Dempsey’s predecessor, former Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm Mike Mullen, angered Pakistan and took US colleagues by surprise when he told Congress last month that Pakistan’s spy agency supported and encouraged attacks by the Haqqani network militants, including the massive truck bombing in Wardak.
He told lawmakers that the network “acts as a veritable arm” of Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, and said Pakistan is “exporting violence” and threatening any success in Afghanistan.
Mullen, who retired at the end of September, struggled to build relations with Pakistan during his four-year tenure, but became increasingly angry in recent months as the Haqqani attacks grew more aggressive and brazen.
Mullen’s accusations complicated the already difficult American relationship with Pakistan, which hit its lowest point in years following the US military raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in May.