WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. and Pakistani officials are continuing talks on the future U.S. military mission in Pakistan but Washington likely will see its influence on Pakistani special forces curtailed as tensions rage between the two nations.
A U.S. official said both countries had been discussing an agreement that would authorize between 100 and 150 U.S. military personnel to be stationed in Pakistan, fewer than have been there in the recent past.
“That’s what they’re driving toward,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The nature and size of the U.S. military presence in Pakistan remains in doubt, like the overall relationship, after the top U.S. military officer drew links last week between Pakistan’s intelligence agency and a violent militant group blamed for attacks on American targets in Afghanistan.
Admiral Mike Mullen, who steps down this week as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI spy agency and accused Islamabad of providing support for the group’s September 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and other attacks.
Those allegations have kicked off a war of words that may jeopardize years of U.S. efforts to nudge Pakistan toward action against the Haqqani network and other militants who operate from Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions.
Mullen defended his remark in an interview on Wednesday with National Public Radio, saying he “phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased” and would change “not a word.”
Mullen said he thought Pakistan maintained ties to the Haqqani network to try to improve its own security and he felt the need to speak up because the group was “so intently focused right now on killing Americans.”
The Haqqani network is allied with Afghanistan’s Taliban and is believed to have close links to al Qaeda. It is now seen as a chief threat to U.S. plans to establish a modicum of peace as it gradually withdraws from Afghanistan.
In the past, there had been some 200 to 300 U.S. military personnel stationed in Pakistan, many of them training Pakistan special forces to confront militants, as part of Washington’s Office of the Defense Representative-Pakistan.
But Islamabad, furious over the U.S. special forces raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May, without Pakistani knowledge, sharply reduced the size of the mission this spring.
The U.S. military declined to disclose how many U.S. personnel are now in Pakistan.
A Pakistani military official acknowledged that negotiations are ongoing, but declined to say how many U.S. personnel would be authorized.
“We will convey what is required, but it will be primarily equipment related,” the Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.
Another U.S. official said most of the U.S. staff expected to be permitted, once a deal was finalized, would be military liaison personnel, mechanics, engineers and others who help Pakistan maintain and operate military equipment rather than special forces trainers.
The Obama administration has been struggling to come up with a way to successfully prod Pakistan into action against the Haqqanis and other militants.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was close to deciding on whether to label the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist group.
Reporting by in Islamabad; Editing by Warren Strobel, Cynthia Osterman and Bill Trott