Top US delegation to enlist Pakistan's help

October 22, 2011 - 2:21 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — CIA chief David Petraeus will be among an army of high-level U.S. officials with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she arrives in Islamabad on Thursday to ramp up pressure on Pakistan to do more to stop militant infiltration across the border into Afghanistan, several U.S. officials in Washington and the region told The Associated Press.

In a muscular show of diplomatic force, the U.S. dispatched most of its senior national security leaders to Pakistan with what several officials described as a combined message of support and pressure.

Petraeus and the nation's top military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, were joining Clinton in Pakistan on Thursday, several officials in the region and in Washington said. Other U.S. officials en route included Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not publicly authorized to speak about the sensitive trip.

The huge contingent is meant to display unity among the various U.S. agencies with a hand and an interest in Pakistan, including the CIA, the military and the State Department. The unified message is particularly important now, current and former U.S. officials said, because of the rising threat from the Haqqani militant network operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The meetings, which neither government has announced because of security concerns, are expected to focus on the recurrent U.S. demand that Pakistan launch its own offensive against Haqqani militants.

For more than three decades the Haqqani network, led by the elderly Jalaluddin Haqqani, has maintained a headquarters in Pakistan's Miran Shah district of North Waziristan. The United States has had some recent successes killing at least two top Haqqani commanders in drone attacks.

The U.S. and NATO consider the Taliban affiliate to be the single greatest enemy in Afghanistan, and accuse Pakistan of providing the group safe havens. There are also recent allegations that Pakistan has sent rocket fire into Afghanistan to provide cover for insurgents crossing the border.

Pakistan has denied aiding the Haqqanis, and an increasingly angry Pakistani military has refused to carry out an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region, saying it would unleash a tribal-wide war that Pakistan could not contain.

According to three senior U.S. officials in Washington and elsewhere, the broader message for the meeting is that the U.S. still wants to have a strategic relationship with Pakistan, and officials believe that it is critical enough to put together this session.

Several officials stressed, however, that the message of cooperation would be coupled with a restatement of deep U.S. concern about the Haqqani network and Pakistan's reluctance to go after the militants.

U.S. military leaders have already told the Pakistanis that if Islamabad does not take action against the Haqqanis, the U.S. will. Although U.S. officials said the meeting this week was not set up to deliver that message, it is likely to come up again.

A new offensive unleashed in recent days by the U.S.-led coalition against the Haqqani network in Afghanistan has added a sense of urgency to the talks in Pakistan.

Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, described the offensive in general terms during an interview Wednesday with the AP.

Allen called it a "high intensity sensitive operation" but would not give a precise location or other details.

"The issue is that every now and again, one of these organizations that has been able to manifest itself on this side of the border is going to have to get some 'special attention,' and that's what's happening now," Allen said.

Senior U.S. officials said the CIA was given a clearer green light to go after the Taliban affiliate in its Pakistani stronghold after the attack on a military base in Wardak, Afghanistan that wounded 77 American soldiers.

The Sept. 10 attack, blamed on the Haqqanis, helped convinced Clinton that the U.S. should take decisive action against the network, two officials said.

Clinton and other U.S. officials had previously worried that CIA pressure on the network, primarily through drone strikes, would make its leaders less likely to support peace efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Washington has had contact with some within the Haqqani network, including Ibrahim Haqqani, the brother of the network's leader Jalaluddin, according to several Afghan and U.S. officials.

That same worry has held up an expected U.S. announcement that the Haqqani network will be placed on a list of terror groups subject to U.S. punishment. That move is now expected within a few weeks, two officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are not complete.

Despite her hope that the Haqqanis could play a useful role in supporting peace talks, the Wardak strike was a turning point for Clinton, one senior U.S. official said.

"The Pakistanis' big mistake was making Hillary Clinton mad," the official said.

With Clinton no longer resisting, the CIA has been free to pursue stepped-up drone attacks on the network, killing a number of Haqqani operatives including a top leader named Janbaz Zadran over the last several weeks.

U.S. intelligence officials say Zadran helped the Haqqanis orchestrate attacks on troops in Kabul and southeastern Afghanistan.

Dempsey's predecessor, former Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, set off a firestorm last month when he told Congress that Pakistan's spy agency supported and encouraged attacks by the Haqqani network militants, including the massive truck bombing in Wardak.

Mullen, who retired at the end of September, struggled to build relations with Pakistan during his four-year tenure, but became increasingly angry in recent months as the Haqqani attacks grew more aggressive and brazen.

He told lawmakers that the network "acts as a veritable arm" of Islamabad's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, and said Pakistan is "exporting violence" and threatening any success in Afghanistan.

Defense officials said Mullen discussed the problems with Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, but Mullen's harsh language still appeared to take many officials in Pakistan and in Washington by surprise. Mullen's most explosive claim, that Pakistan's spy agency had supported the Haqqanis in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last month, was only thinly supported by U.S. intelligence, two U.S. officials said. Other U.S. officials have been careful not to repeat those claims, and some appeared to repudiate them at the time.

The mixed messages complicated the already difficult American relationship with Pakistan, which hit its lowest point in years following the U.S. military raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

With 170,000 soldiers deployed to its eastern border with Afghanistan and more than 3,000 soldiers killed in battles with militants, Pakistan bristles at U.S. criticism. A senior military official told the AP that Pakistan has its own problems as a result of safe havens in Afghanistan used by militants attacking the Pakistani military.

Militants have found a safe haven in Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces, the military official said on condition of anonymity to speak freely. He said anti-Pakistan militants have benefited from a U.S. decision this year to abandon forward operating bases in Kunar.

Dozens of Pakistani soldiers have been killed in recent months by Taliban insurgents who seem to slip freely across the northeastern border with Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.