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U.S. delivers blunt message to Pakistan on Haqqani network

In Islamabad, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, joined by other top American officials, says the U.S. will fight the insurgent group inside Afghanistan, with or without Pakistan's help.

October 20, 2011|Alex Rodriguez and Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey, far left, and CIA Director David H. Petraeus, awaits the arrival of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for talks in Islamabad.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, accompanied by Chairman of… (Kevin Lamarque / Pool Photo )

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Kabul, — The U.S. needs Pakistan's cooperation to succeed against an insurgent group that uses sanctuaries along the Afghan border from which to attack American and Afghan forces. But so far, Washington has failed to entice that cooperation — or coerce it through threats to pull billions of dollars in aid.

On Thursday, Washington embarked on a get-tough strategy — sending its top diplomat along with its top intelligence and military officers to Islamabad to deliver the blunt message: Whether or not Pakistan chooses to help, the U.S. will continue to fight the Haqqani network inside Afghanistan while seeking a negotiated end to the decade-old Afghan conflict that has taken the lives of more than 1,800 U.S. soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's arrival in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, on Thursday, accompanied by CIA Director David H. Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, signaled the all-out nature of the bid to persuade Pakistan to cooperate. The Islamic militant group, which hides out in Pakistan's largely lawless tribal areas along with the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents, is regarded as the biggest threat to U.S. and Afghan forces. But the top-level American visit comes as Pakistan's military leaders appear more determined than ever to resist Washington's pleas.

Clinton summarized the U.S. strategy as a "fight, talk, build" approach: battle insurgents who have no interest in talking peace, engage politically with the others and, in the meantime, work to promote better governance and development in Afghanistan. Citing a continuing U.S. and Afghan offensive against Haqqani militants in Afghanistan's Kunar province, Clinton promised that those who continue to resist will face unrelenting military pressure.

Many in Washington and Kabul view Pakistan as an obstructionist force that supports Afghan insurgents because it needs them as a hedge against any move by nuclear archrival India to spread influence over Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave.

But so far, Pakistan has been unmoved by calls for cooperation or even from threats by Congress to suspend aid. Islamabad's defiance was evident during a briefing Tuesday by army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and the head of military operations, Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, to members of the Pakistani parliament's defense committees.

"As far as we are concerned, we're not interested," a lawmaker who attended the briefing quoted Kayani as saying. The lawmaker spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing was a closed-door session. "They keep throwing this damn aid [threat] at us time and again. We don't want their military aid."

Pakistan's military leaders have acknowledged maintaining contact with the Haqqani network, but they have angrily denied Washington's accusations that they actively assisted the group, which attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and launched a truck bombing that injured 77 U.S. soldiers in Wardak province last month.

Underlying Pakistan's reluctance is a profound disagreement with Washington's approach toward resolving the Afghan conflict. Washington believes that as Afghan insurgent groups are weakened on the battlefield, those among them willing to accept the Afghan Constitution can be approached with reconciliation efforts.

Pakistani military leaders view that approach as contradictory. At Kayani's briefing, he and Nadeem questioned the logic of demanding that Pakistani troops militarily pursue Haqqani insurgents in their havens in the tribal region of North Waziristan, while requesting that they entice Haqqani leaders to negotiate.

"What Kayani and Nadeem said was very clear, that the American administration is confused," the lawmaker who attended the briefing said. "On one end, they say that Pakistan should take action against the Haqqani network, and then they expect us to bring them to negotiations. If we attack them, we can't do the other. They have to make up their minds before they start pressuring Pakistan."

Clinton's agenda Thursday included meetings with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. Earlier in the day, she met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and later told reporters that the onus was squarely on Pakistan to move against insurgents taking sanctuary on its soil and to open the way for talks with them.

"We believe they can play a constructive or destructive role," Clinton said, referring to Pakistan. "They can either be helping or hindering."

Karzai, meanwhile, said it was up to Pakistani officials to identify the militants on their soil and facilitate contacts with them. Afghan officials, he said, needed "a door we can knock on, a telephone number we can call."

Fears are growing in Pakistan of the prospect of a unilateral ground operation by U.S. troops into North Waziristan to capture or kill Haqqani network leaders. Those worries were fueled by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's veiled warning this fall that the U.S. would go after Haqqani militants on its own if Pakistan's army continued to balk at militarily pursuing the group on its soil.

Most experts believe that the U.S. wouldn't risk a ground assault that probably would prompt Pakistan to sever all ties with Washington. Nevertheless, Kayani warned at his briefing that the "U.S. better think 10 times" before carrying out any major operation in Pakistan's tribal areas, adding that unlike nations such as Afghanistan or Iraq, Pakistan is a nuclear power.

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

laura.king@latimes.com

Rodriguez reported from Islamabad and King from Kabul.

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