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U.S. Running Out of Patience on Pakistan Militant Havens

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June 7 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is running out of patience with Pakistan over its failure to crack down on the Haqqani guerrilla group, which has stepped up attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

“It’s an increasing concern that safe havens continue to exist” in Pakistan and the Haqqani network is able to flee to safety after mounting attacks, Panetta told reporters in Kabul today after meeting Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. “We are reaching the limits of our patience here and for that reason it’s extremely important that Pakistan take action.”

Panetta, on the last leg of an Asian tour, arrived in Kabul from India to assess troop pullout plans in Afghanistan even as attacks on coalition forces by the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani militants are escalating.

As the Obama administration plans its exit from an 11-year war in Afghanistan, its relationship with Pakistan has been battered by series of standoffs. The U.S. needs Pakistan’s cooperation in halting cross-border attacks, reopening coalition supply lines, and at least tacitly accepting allied drone strikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan such as the one this week that killed al-Qaeda’s second-in-command.

“There clearly has been an increase in the attacks,” Panetta told reporters accompanying him before arriving in Kabul. “We’ve seen a recent attack that was much more organized than what we have seen before, using a vehicle IED combined with suicide bombers,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

Surge Troops

The Pentagon had anticipated that attacks would rise over the next few months as it prepares to withdraw the additional troops President Barack Obama sent to Afghanistan in 2010 as part of his administration’s surge strategy, Panetta said. Still, Marine Corps General John Allen, the top coalition commander in the country, has “expressed concern at the renewed level of attacks,” said Panetta, in advance of his fourth visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary.

Panetta said today that he was “very confident we can maintain the pace with respect to withdrawal of surge forces and be able to deal with the uptick in violence at the same time.”

Wardak said there’s “enough flexibility built into the plan to revise as the security situation changes.”

Pakistan has options it could use to curb cross-border raids, including counterintelligence operations, law enforcement and even military action, Wardak said.

More Difficult

“If they take action, we’ll be able to disrupt” the Haqqani network’s command and control, Wardak said. “Without doing that our endeavor to achieve victory will become much more difficult.”

The guerrillas controlled by Jalaluddin Haqqani maintain bases in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border. They have been blamed for high profile attacks in Kabul and Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, including a rocket-propelled grenade assault on the U.S. embassy in September last year. Former U.S. military chief Mike Mullen last year said the Haqqanis operate as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s main spy agency as it bids to retain influence in Afghanistan.

The American-led international coalition plans to pull out most of the 88,000 U.S. troops and their 40,000 counterparts from other nations by the end of 2014. Once the withdrawal is complete, “the Afghan war as we understand it is over,” Obama said last month. An unspecified number of U.S. troops would remain in training roles.

Maintaining Coalition

As the U.S. seeks to draw down involvement in the war, it is bidding hold the international coalition together, train, equip and transfer security missions and logistical support to Afghan forces and prevent a Taliban resurgence. It must also reassure friends that it isn’t abandoning Afghanistan and foes that they can’t simply wait until America and its allies depart.

In discussions with U.S. officials, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “continues to indicate a willingness to cooperate” in efforts to control militants operating from the country’s northwest, Panetta said before landing in Kabul. “We have to do as much as we can to urge Pakistan to take that on.”

Speaking yesterday in New Delhi, Panetta said achieving U.S. goals for Afghanistan “is going to be in large measure dependent on a Pakistan that can confront terrorism within their own borders.”

Reopening Routes

The U.S. is still negotiating with Pakistan in an effort to reopen routes used to transport military supplies to Afghanistan, Panetta said. Pakistan halted the transit after coalition air strikes in November killed 24 of its soldiers.

The U.S. also is urging traditional enemies India and Pakistan to improve their relations so the South Asian nations don’t turn Afghanistan into the battleground of a proxy war after 2014, Panetta said.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who met with Panetta in New Delhi, recognizes that danger and “has an interest in trying to pursue improving” ties with Pakistan, Panetta said.

Trade ties and military-to-military talks between India and Pakistan are improving, Panetta said.

Continue Efforts

In New Delhi, Panetta also met India’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and urged them to “continue, and if possible expand” India’s efforts to train Afghan military and police units, he said.

About 30,000 Afghan forces already receive training in India as part of an agreement between the two countries. Pakistani officials have expressed concern about Indian influence in Afghanistan.

The U.S. isn’t studying any alternatives to the U.S.-led training effort in Afghanistan after 2014, Panetta said yesterday in response to a question after speaking at an event in New Delhi organized by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. He said no effort is under way to organize a regional peace-keeping force led by the United Nations.

“We don’t have a Plan B because we don’t think we need a Plan B,” Panetta said. “Our goal is to continue to train and support and assist the Afghan army so they can be a permanent force.”

The continued presence of U.S. military trainers beyond 2014 is “additional insurance” against any weakening of Afghan capabilities, he said.

Asked today whether Afghanistan was concerned about the size of the U.S. force after 2014, Wardak said the “political, strategic and symbolic significance of the force is far more important than the actual size.”

Wardak said U.S. forces can move “quickly from one corner to another.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Kabul at gratnam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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