Mullen blames Pakistan intelligence for attack

September 22, 2011 - 4:30 PM
US Afghanistan Iraq

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looks on at left as Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. military officer on Thursday accused Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency of backing extremists in planning and executing the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan last week and a truck bomb attack that wounded 77 American soldiers days earlier.

In his last congressional testimony before he retires next week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the Haqqani insurgent network "acts as a veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, undermining the uneasy U.S.-Pakistan relationship forged in the terror fight and endangering American troops in the nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is "exporting violence" and threatening any success in Afghanistan, Mullen said.

"In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence," Mullen said. "They may believe that by using these proxies, they are hedging their bets or redressing what they feel is an imbalance in regional power. But in reality, they have already lost that bet."

Mullen's harsh words marked the first time an American official had directly tied Pakistan's intelligence agency to the attacks and signaled a significant shift in the U.S. approach to Islamabad. In the past, U.S. criticism of Pakistan largely had been relayed in private conversations with the countries' leaders while American officials publicly offered encouraging words for Islamabad's participation in the terror fight.

In recent days, U.S. officials have been explicit in linking the government to extremists who are attacking American forces in Afghanistan.

"With ISI support, Haqqani operatives plan and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy," Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He also said the United States had credible information that Haqqani extremists, with help from the Pakistani intelligence agency, were responsible for the June 28 attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and other small but effective assaults.

The Joint Chiefs chairman has nurtured ties with the Pakistanis, meeting with officials more than two dozen times, including a 2 1/2-hour session last week in Spain with his Pakistani counterpart, Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.

Mullen reaffirmed his support for continued U.S. engagement with the nuclear-armed Pakistan and warned of the consequences if the relationship breaks down.

"While Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of solution," Mullen said. "I believe that a flawed and difficult relationship is better than no relationship at all."

Testifying with Mullen, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also decried Pakistani support for the Haqqani network, and said Pakistani authorities have been told that the U.S. will not tolerate a continuation of the group's cross-border attacks. Panetta said the message was delivered recently by new CIA Director David Petraeus in a meeting with the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency.

"They must take steps to prevent the safe haven that the Haqqanis are using," Panetta said. "We simply cannot allow these kinds of terrorists to be able to go into Afghanistan, attack our forces and then return to Pakistan for safe haven."

He repeated the point later, adding, "That is not tolerable."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, pressed Panetta on what options are available to the U.S. to go after the Haqqani network. Panetta declined to go into details publicly but made clear that the Pakistanis know what might happen.

"I don't think they would be surprised by the actions we might or might not take," he said. He also said he has not spelled out for the Pakistanis what unilateral actions the Obama administration would be willing to take.

The Haqqanis network, largely operating in eastern Afghanistan, is affiliated with both the Taliban and al-Qaida. It has emerged as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan stability, and is responsible for plotting and launching attacks from Pakistan across the border against U.S. and coalition forces.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Panetta whether he supports a move in Congress to condition further U.S. aid to Pakistan on the administration's ability to certify that the Pakistani government is cooperating with the U.S. in fighting extremist groups, including the Haqqanis.

"Anything that makes clear to them that we cannot tolerate their providing this kind of safe haven to the Haqqanis, and that they have to take action — any signal that we can send to them — I think would be important to do," Panetta said.

On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $53 billion foreign aid bill that cuts and restricts aid to Pakistan. The bill would provide $1 billion for the Pakistan Counter-insurgency Capability Fund, $100 million below President Barack Obama's request. It conditioned aid on Pakistan's cooperation against the Haqqani network, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, with some waivers. The panel also took the unusual step of not specifying other assistance to Pakistan.

Congress was particularly incensed with Pakistan for either complicity in or ignorance of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. The al-Qaida leader was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May at a compound deep in Pakistan, just miles from Pakistan's equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

After the U.S. raided bin Laden's secret compound — 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.

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.

Panetta said he has made it clear to Pakistan that "terrorism is as much a threat for them as it is for the United States. But it's very important that they cannot choose between terrorists."