U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed action to stop a Pakistan-based militant group from staging “unacceptable” attacks in Afghanistan and then fleeing back to their haven across the border.
“I’m not going to talk about how we’re going to respond,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him yesterday to San Francisco. “I’ll just let you know we are not going to allow these kinds of attacks to go on.”
U.S. officials have pinned a weekend truck bomb attack and this week’s assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO coalition headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on the Jalaluddin Haqqani group, a guerrilla faction with ties to Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. The network operates largely from a sanctuary in Pakistan’s borderland with Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has increased diplomatic and financial pressure on Pakistan to move more quickly and aggressively against militant networks that the U.S. says are targeting the country’s own people as well as its neighbors. Relations fell to a new low after American special operations forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a May raid within Pakistan without that government’s knowledge.
“I’m very concerned about the Haqqani attacks because, No. 1, they’re killing people, killing our forces,” Panetta said. “No. 2, they escape back into what is a safe haven in Pakistan, and that’s unacceptable.”
Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are in California for a day of annual talks today with their Australian counterparts.
Clinton, visiting the Pakistani capital Islamabad in May for talks that included Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. expects Pakistan’s leaders to take “decisive” action against extremist groups such as the Haqqani guerrillas in North Waziristan.
“Many of the world’s most vicious terrorists have been living in Pakistan,” Clinton said in a visit after the bin Laden raid. “There is much more work that is required and it is urgent.”
In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its coalition partners are fighting the Taliban and associated groups whose leaders operate from the tribal regions of Pakistan.
The weekend truck bombing created a crater 20 feet (6 meters) long and 9 feet deep, said Panetta, who took office July 1 after serving as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he helped lead the bin Laden raid.
Looking for Evidence
The U.S. suspects the Haqqani network also was behind the attack two days ago on the embassy, and continues to look for evidence that might prove the link, Panetta said. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the assault didn’t seriously endanger his embassy.
“Time and again, we’ve urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over these kinds of attacks from the Haqqanis,” the defense chief said. “We’ve made very little progress in that area.”
Afghan and coalition forces did manage to quell the firefight, Panetta said, repeating official U.S. assertions that the assault was more an indicator of Taliban weakness than strength. He said he was conducting an unrelated secure video conference with General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, when the standoff was under way in the streets of Kabul.
“Anytime they can make their way into Kabul, into the capital, that’s cause for concern,” Panetta said. “At the same time, the forces did respond and respond quickly. Casualties were limited and we were able to basically defeat their effort.”
Panetta said Allen assured him the coalition was continuing to reduce levels of violence overall in Afghanistan and “seriously weaken” the Taliban.
“His view, and I share it, is that these kind of attacks - - sporadic attacks and assassination attempts -- are more a reflection of the fact that they’re losing their ability to be able to attack our forces on a broader scale,” Panetta said.