WASHINGTON (AP) — As the U.S. military marches warily toward the exits in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is on an increasingly uncertain path in Pakistan. Islamabad's suspected ties to Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants risk drawing the U.S. deeper into conflict in that nuclear-armed nation.
The Pakistan problem is certain to surface Thursday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, the soon-to-retire chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify at a Senate hearing billed as an examination of administration exit strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan. They also are expected to be asked about the implications of deep cuts in defense spending, potentially approaching $1 trillion over 10 years.
The testimony is Panetta's first since he took office July 1. And it will be Mullen's last. He will retire next week, ending a 43-year Navy career.
In recent days administration officials have taken a harsher tone toward Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of maintaining links with the Haqqani network, a band of Islamist fighters that the U.S. says are behind attacks in Afghanistan, including last week's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Mullen, who has met frequently with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, over the past few years, said in prepared remarks for the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Haqqanis have "long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government" and are "in many ways a strategic arm" of Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. He said the Haqqanis were behind several recent major attacks in Afghanistan, including the embassy attack and a Sept. 10 truck bomb attack that killed five Afghans and injured 77 U.S. soldiers.
Mullen said the Pakistani government also is supporting the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders are based in Quetta, Pakistan.
"The actions by the Pakistani government to support them — actively and passively — represent a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction," Mullen said in his prepared remarks. A copy of his remarks was provided in advance to The Associated Press.
Mullen said earlier this week there is a "proxy connection" between Pakistani intelligence services and the Haqqanis, meaning the militants are secretly doing the Pakistanis' bidding.
"The Haqqani piece of this has got to be reversed — period," he told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mullen said he delivered that message to Kayani last week during a meeting in Spain.
The increasingly tough U.S. rhetoric — particularly the accusation of a proxy relationship — reflects a U.S. belief that Pakistani intelligence in recent months has more aggressively facilitated attacks by the Haqqanis on Afghan and American targets inside Afghanistan, one senior military official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said it's unclear whether Pakistani leaders intend to heed U.S. warnings.
Late last week, Panetta asserted that the U.S. will do whatever necessary to stop the Haqqani network attacks on U.S. forces. He would not say whether that means that the U.S. will take new military action, but there already has been an increase in U.S. drone strikes into Pakistan's border regions.
Panetta's remarks were interpreted as a veiled warning that the U.S. may resort again to unilateral action against the insurgents. Such public warnings, however, may only damage anti-terror cooperation between the two nations, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Tehmina Janjua said.
After the U.S. raided Osama bin Laden's secret compound inside Pakistan in May — without alerting Pakistani authorities in advance — relations deteriorated further. Pakistan suspended a program under which U.S. special operations forces helped train Pakistani forces in counterterrorist tactics, although U.S. officials on Wednesday disclosed a compromise deal to slash the number of U.S. military personnel allowed in Pakistan to between 100 and 150, about half of what it had been. The number of special operations trainers would fall from 140 to fewer than 10.
The Haqqani connection in Pakistan, and the haven that Pakistan provides for other Islamic extremist groups, including the Taliban, are major impediments to U.S. success in Afghanistan. Another major worry is corruption inside the Afghan government, as the U.S. and its NATO allies proceed with a plan to hand over full responsibility for security and other functions to the Afghans by the end of 2014. By that date, all U.S. combat forces are to have been withdrawn.
In his prepared remarks for Thursday's hearing, Mullen offered a notably stark assessment of the risks that Afghan official corruption poses for the fate of the American-led effort to stabilize that country.
"If we continue to draw down forces apace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked, we will risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith," he said. "At best this would lead to continued localized conflicts as neighborhood strongmen angle for their cut and the people for their survival; at worst it could lead to government collapse and civil war."
The military pullout from Iraq is more advanced, yet major questions remain about whether it will be completed this year as scheduled. The two sides say they are discussing whether some number of U.S. troops — perhaps several thousand — should remain next year to continue training Iraqi forces.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has reacted critically to reports that the administration wants to limit the potential number of remnant forces to 3,000 to 5,000. McCain argues that this is woefully inadequate to meet Iraq's security needs.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., considers 3,000 to be more than enough. McCain and some others say at least 10,000 will be required. In an interview Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he thinks the right number is between 10,000 and 15,000. Graham said the Iraqis need a sizeable U.S. military presence to help not only with counterterrorism but also with potential threats from Iran.
"The good news for us as a nation is we went from almost losing Iraq to being inside the 10-year line," Graham said. "Let's just don't fumble."
At present the U.S. has about 44,500 troops in Iraq.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP