ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani officials on Thursday fended off a warning that the United States would do whatever it takes to defend U.S. forces from Pakistan-based militants staging attacks in Afghanistan, saying there was no proof of such cross-border operations.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, suspect militants from the Haqqani network were behind Tuesday’s rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul, as well as a truck bomb last Saturday that wounded 77 American forces.
“Time and again we’ve urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over these kinds of attacks from the Haqqanis. And we have made very little progress in that area,” Panetta told reporters flying with him to San Francisco on Wednesday.
“I think the message they need to know is: we’re going to do everything we can to defend our forces.”
The comments could fuel tensions between uneasy allies the United States and Pakistan. Relations dropped to a low point after a unilateral U.S. special forces raid killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town in May.
Pakistani officials said it was the responsibility of U.S.-led forces to crack down on militants when they enter Afghanistan.
“We are using all our resources to fight terrorism. As far as these issues like Haqqani network launching attacks from Pakistani territory is concerned, has any proof ever been given?” said a senior Pakistani military official who asked not to be named.
A senior Pakistani government official involved in defense policy said the South Asian country, reliant on billions of dollars in U.S. aid, was doing all it could to stop militants from crossing the border to Afghanistan.
“But if the militants are doing something inside Afghanistan, then it is the responsibility of the Afghan and Western forces to hold them on the borders,” he said.
“They let everyone go scot-free on their side (of the border) and then they say Pakistan is not doing enough.”
Panetta, who was CIA director until July, has long pressed Islamabad to go after the Haqqanis, perhaps the most feared of the Taliban-allied insurgent factions fighting U.S.-led NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence has long been suspected of maintaining ties with the Haqqani network, cultivated during the 1980s when Jalaluddin Haqqani was a feared battlefield commander against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Pakistan says it has no links to the group.
Panetta said he was concerned about the Haqqanis’ ability to attack American troops and then “escape back into what is a safe haven in Pakistan.”
“And that’s unacceptable,” Panetta said.
The CIA has had success targeting militants in Pakistan using pilotless drones. Last month, Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, cited progress curtailing Haqqani movements within Afghanistan.
Going after Haqqani could be risky for Pakistan’s army, which is already stretched fighting Taliban militants determined to topple the U.S.-backed government.
Haqqani himself is believed to have thousands of seasoned fighters, and he is revered by other militant groups who would likely defend him against any offensives.
U.S. and Pakistani officials recently noted strong counter-terrorism cooperation after senior al Qaeda operative Younis al-Mauritani was captured in Pakistan this month.
Comments from both sides suggested the allies were starting to put behind them the bitterness caused by bin Laden’s death.
After the secret raid, the number of U.S. military trainers in Pakistani, who had numbered in the hundreds a year ago, were reduced to literally a couple of hand-fulls earlier this year
Some U.S. officials in Washington said relations were still heavily strained.
“The bilateral relationship is still in deep trouble but the atmospherics are a bit better. Name calling has largely ended for now,” said former senior CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who has advised Obama on policy in South Asia.
“Distrust has not gone away, nor has the fundamental difference in the approach to terror.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Phil Stewart in San Francisco; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Nick Macfie