By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD - The Obama administration on Friday intensified pressure on Pakistan to do more to crack down on Islamist militants destabilizing Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a tough public message that extremists have been able to operate in and from Pakistan for too long.
For the second time in two days, Clinton pressed Pakistani authorities to step up efforts against the Haqqani militant network. The Taliban affiliate is based in Pakistan's rugged tribal region, and is blamed for escalating attacks both inside Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, including recent direct assaults on U.S. soldiers and civilians. Clinton also acknowledged that the United States has sought to talk peace with the Haqqanis, in hopes of enlisting their help in an eventual political settlement to end the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
After leading an unusually large and powerful U.S. delegation, including CIA director David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, for four hours of talks with Pakistani officials late Thursday, Clinton met Friday with Pakistan's president and foreign minister.
"We should be able to agree that for too long extremists have been able to operate here in Pakistan and from Pakistani soil," she said. "No one who targets innocent civilians, whether they be Pakistanis, Afghans, Americans or anyone else, should be tolerated or protected."
The U.S. has grown increasingly impatient with Pakistan's refusal to take military action against the Taliban-linked Haqqani network and its ambivalence, if not hostility, to supporting Afghan attempts to reconcile with Taliban fighters.
Clinton made clear that that was no longer acceptable while American officials warned that if Pakistan continued to balk, the U.S. would act unilaterally. The U.S. is already pressing a broader campaign against the Haqqanis inside Pakistan, mostly through the use of CIA drone strikes that many in Pakistan see as a violation of their sovereignty.
"Pakistan has a critical role to play in supporting Afghan reconciliation and ending the conflict," Clinton told reporters at a joint press conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. "We look to Pakistan to take strong steps to deny Afghan insurgents safe havens and to encourage the Taliban to enter negotiations in good faith."
For her part, Khar repeated Pakistani denials of any government connection to the Haqqanis.
"There is no question of any support by any Pakistani institution to safe havens in Pakistan," she said.
And, she insisted that Pakistan and the U.S. shared the same goal.
"Pakistan takes the threat of terrorism seriously," she said, noting that thousands of Pakistanis had been killed by extremists over the past decade. "We are committed to this process, we would be willing to do whatever we can to be able to make this a success."
The Haqqani group is considered the greatest threat to American troops in Afghanistan.
Clinton noted that U.S. and Afghan forces had recently launched a successful operation against Haqqani safe havens in Afghanistan and that Pakistan must do the same. On Thursday in the Afghan capital, she said those who allow such safe havens to remain would pay "a very big price."
After the lengthy meeting with Pakistan's prime minister and army and intelligence chiefs on Thursday and Friday's talks with Kahr, Clinton said the U.S. delegation had asked "very specifically for greater cooperation from the Pakistan side to squeeze the Haqqani network and other terrorists because we know that trying to eliminate terrorists and safe havens from one side of the border is not going to work."
"It's like that old story: you can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors," she said.
Clinton made the same argument later in a town hall meeting with civic leaders.
"No policy that draws distinctions between good terrorists and bad terrorists can provide long-term security," she said.
She also acknowledged that U.S.-Pakistani ties were now badly strained. "Our relationship of late has not been an easy one," she said. "We have seen common interests give way to mutual suspicion."
A Pakistani security official said he thought Clinton's visit helped reduce tension in the relationship. But key areas of disagreement remained, and Clinton's strong public comments could make it even more difficult for the Pakistani government to meet U.S. demands, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
The Pakistani military has said it can't launch an offensive against the Haqqani network in its safe haven in the North Waziristan tribal area because its troops are stretched too thin by other operations against insurgents at war with the state. This position has hardened as Pakistan has faced growing attacks from militants it claims cross over from sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, Pakistan's powerful army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani said a in a rare briefing to two parliamentary defense committees that the country has been getting mixed signals from the United States, with the Pentagon urging the military to focus on fighting militants and the State Department requesting help in negotiating with the insurgents, said a parliament member who attended the meeting.
Kayani said Washington needs to make up its mind because it won't work to attack them and try to negotiate with them at the same time, according to the lawmaker.
- Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.