WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, visiting Pakistan on a fence-mending tour, turned unusually blunt Thursday, accusing the government of failing to do all it could to track down Al Qaeda.
Clinton told a group of journalists in Lahore that she found it "hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to." Al Qaeda, she said, "has had a safe haven in Pakistan since 2002."
Clinton's three-day visit is her first to Pakistan since she became secretary of State, and its principal goal is to improve strained relations. On the first day of her visit, in Islamabad, she declared that she wanted to "turn a page" in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.
But on the second day, frustration seemed to surface as Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York, confronted the long-standing strains between the countries.
Discussing Al Qaeda, she raised the issue of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has been accused of secretly supporting militant groups in Afghanistan.
"There are issues that, not just the U.S., but others have with your government and with your military security establishment," she said.
Her comments came on a day when she took questions from students at Government College University in Lahore who made it clear that they are deeply suspicious of the United States' intentions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Speaking to a group of business executives, Clinton also criticized Pakistan for its low rate of tax collection, which reflects rampant tax evasion and, critics say, undermines the country's efforts to address poverty.
"At the risk of sounding undiplomatic, Pakistan has to have internal investment in your public services and your business opportunities," she told the executives. The U.S. government taxes "everything that moves and everything that doesn't, and that's not what we see in Pakistan."
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has recently been under strain. Many Pakistanis believe U.S. strikes by drone aircraft in the western tribal areas are an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty, and there has been an outcry over U.S. legislation providing $7.5 billion in new aid, which many Pakistanis see as American meddling in their government.
A U.S. official said Clinton's comments about Al Qaeda were not part of a prepared message she had intended to deliver, but reflected her own heartfelt views.
"She has very deeply held views about Al Qaeda," said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "You've got to remember, she was a senator from New York on 9/11."
Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations said he was surprised that Clinton would raise the issue of Pakistan's efforts on Al Qaeda, given the current fragility of the civilian government.
"It seems like an odd time to come in and send this one across the bow," said Markey, a former State Department official just returned from a trip to Pakistan. "It's a little bit surprising."
Clinton's comments on Al Qaeda could ruffle feathers in Pakistan, where the army is engaged in a ground offensive in the militant haven of South Waziristan, begun at the strong urging of the United States.
A Pakistani official predicted that Clinton's comments would make some people in Pakistan angry, "some perhaps violently so." But he said that in his view, Clinton's candor was a sign that the relationship was maturing.
Clinton has earned a reputation for sometimes speaking with candor more closely associated with senators than chief diplomats.
On her first trip to Asia, early this year, she upset human rights advocates by saying China's intransigence on human rights should not affect the Washington-Beijing relationship on other issues.
Last spring, when insurgents invaded Pakistan's Swat Valley and appeared headed for the capital, Islamabad, she bluntly warned leaders that they might be risking the country's existence by failing to act against the insurgents.
Pakistani media have been skeptical about the earnestness of Clinton's trip. This morning, an editorial in the Nation newspaper called the visit "a PR exercise aimed at winning over hearts and minds. But with what? A few sanitized meetings with selected media people, students and the 'right' civil society members?"
Times staff writer Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad contributed to this report.