Islamabad: The Obama administration delivered a blunt warning on Thursday that the United States will do what it must to go after militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whether Pakistan helps or not.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led an unusually large US delegation for two days of talks with civilian and military leaders who have resisted previous US’ demands to take a harder tack against militants who attack American soldiers and interests in Afghanistan.
The large US contingent was meant to display unity among the various US agencies, including the CIA, Pentagon and State Department, with an interest in Pakistan. CIA chief David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey joined Hillary, who said the team would "push Pakistan very hard”.
There were cordial handshakes and greetings among the large US and Pakistani delegation gathered at the office of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as the first of two evening meetings began. Pakistan`s foreign minister, Army chief and intelligence head were expected to see their US counterparts on Thursday.
Hillary arrived in Islamabad from Afghanistan, where she told Pakistan it must be part of the solution to the Afghan conflict. She said 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.
"Our message is very clear," Hillary said. "We`re going to be fighting, we are going to be talking and we are going to be building ... and they can either be helping or hindering, but we are not going to stop."
The meetings focused 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; US officials claim Pakistan either tolerates or supports the group`s activities.
A senior US official said Thursday`s four hours of meetings were "extremely frank" and "very detailed" but declined to offer details.
In a statement, Gilani`s office said the discussion was "cordial and frank”. But it also suggested Pakistan was unhappy with the message push by recalling statements denying US allegations of links between Pakistan and militants.
"Disagreements between the coalition partners in the war on terror should not undermine strategic relationship which is so vital for the promotion of mutual interests of the two countries," the statement quoted Gilani as saying.
US military leaders have told the Pakistanis that if Islamabad does not act against the Haqqanis, the US will.
"We must send a clear, unequivocal message to the government and people of Pakistan that they must be part of the solution, and that means ridding their own country of terrorists who kill their own people and who cross the border to kill people in Afghanistan," Hillary said.
Pakistan has deployed 170,000 soldiers to its eastern border with Afghanistan and more than 3,000 soldiers have died in battles with militants. So Pakistani leaders bristle at US criticism that they have not done enough or that they play a double game — fighting militants in some areas, 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.
General John Allen, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, described the offensive during an interview on Wednesday 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 September 10 attack, blamed on the Haqqanis, helped convince Hillary that the US should take decisive action against the network, two officials said.
Hillary and other US officials had 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 terrorist 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 they 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. 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.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, on Thursday former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf said the relationship between Pakistan and the United States was at its lowest point and plagued by "total mistrust”.
Musharraf said the Pakistani military was guilty of "terrible negligence" in allowing Osama bin Laden to go undetected before he was killed in a US raid. He also said Pakistan hadn`t done enough to target the Haqqani network.
But Musharraf said US officials are wrong to accuse Pakistan of aiding militants.
"Pakistan is a victim and not a perpetrator of terrorism," Musharraf said.
US officials in Washington and elsewhere say the broader message for Thursday`s meeting was that the US still wanted to have a strategic relationship with Pakistan. The gathering was also meant to dispel any mixed messages from US officials.
Dempsey`s predecessor as Joint Chiefs chairman, now-retired Admiral 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.