| ||Panetta warns on Pakistan terror havens |
By Geoff Dyer
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Washington - The US is “reaching the limits of our patience” with Pakistan about the havens enjoyed by terrorist groups, said Leon Panetta, defence secretary, after a week in which Washington has stepped up its controversial use of drone attacks in the country.
Speaking on Thursday during a visit to Afghanistan, Mr Panetta repeatedly expressed his frustration at the ability of Islamist militants to launch attacks in Afghanistan from their bases across the border in Pakistan.
His unusually blunt language underlines the continued deterioration in ties between the two countries, with rising anti-American feeling in Pakistan about the drone attacks matched by mounting criticism in Washington about what many feel is the double-game that Pakistan is playing in Afghanistan.
“We have made that clear time and time again, and will continue to make clear that it is an intolerable situation to have those people attacking our people, our forces and to have the convenience of being able to return to safe havens in Pakistan,” Mr Panetta said at a news conference in Kabul.
“It is very important for Pakistan to take steps . . . we are reaching the limits of our patience,” he said. “It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan.”
His sharp comments followed a fresh eruption of anger in Pakistan after the US conducted three drone strikes on its territory in recent days, one of which killed the man US officials believe to have been the number two figure in al-Qaeda.
Pakistan’s parliament has passed a resolution calling for the drone strikes to end, and the government has made suspension of the attacks a condition of reopening supply routes to the war effort in Afghanistan.
The delicate politics of continued US military presence in Afghanistan were underlined when Afghan officials said 18 civilians had been killed in a Nato air strike on Wednesday. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, returned early from a summit in Beijing because of the deaths, which he said had “no justification”.
The US has long pressured Pakistan to take more action against the Haqqani network of Afghan militants, many of whom have taken refuge across the border in Pakistan. Many US officials and analysts believe that Pakistan provides cover for this and other groups, believing it will give them leverage in Afghanistan once the bulk of Nato forces leave in 2014.
The relationship of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency with the Haqqanis has been a constant source of irritation to Washington. Shortly before stepping down last year as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen went public with those frustrations, telling a congressional hearing that the Haqqani network was “a virtual arm” of the ISI, a claim that prompted an outraged response from Pakistan.
Speaking to an audience in India before his trip to Afghanistan, Mr Panetta joked about how Pakistan had been kept in the dark about the plans to storm Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, an event which still infuriates Pakistan’s leadership. “They didn’t know about our operation,” he said to laughter in the audience. “That was the whole idea.”