Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Thursday that the United States was reaching the limits of its patience with Pakistan over the Haqqani network that attacks U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan “has to take action” against safe havens used by the Haqqani network in its semi-autonomous tribal belt, Panetta told a news conference in Kabul. “We are reaching the limits of our patience here,” Panetta added.
He singled out the Haqqani network, a Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked faction believed to be based in Pakistan’s lawless tribal district of North Waziristan.
“It’s an increasing concern that Haqqani safe havens still exist on the other side of the border. Pakistan has to take action from allowing terrorists in their country to attack our forces on the other side of the border,” he said.
“We are reaching the limits of our patience here,” he added.
Afghan and U.S. officials have blamed the Haqqani network for some of the deadliest attacks of the 10-year war, including a brazen 18-hour assault on Kabul in April − the biggest to hit the Afghan capital in a decade.
Panetta said that in talks with Pakistan, the United States had made “very clear, time and time again,” the need to crack down on Haqqani militants.
Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a major offensive against the network in North Waziristan, arguing that it is too overstretched in the fight against local Taliban to take on an enemy that poses no threat to Pakistan.
Independent analysts have suggested that Pakistan is not capable of defeating the Haqqanis, a well-organized and disciplined force that can command thousands of fighters.
Meanwhile, Panetta told troops in Afghanistan that the decade-long war was at “a turning point,” as Kabul reacted with fury to a NATO air strike that killed up to 18 civilians.
President Hamid Karzai branded Wednesday’s air strike on a home in Logar province “unacceptable” and cut short a visit to China.
The United States, which leads 130,000 NATO troops fighting a Taliban insurgency, is planning to withdraw the bulk of combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and hand responsibility for security to the Afghans.
Panetta noted a recent “uptick” in violence and said a double suicide attack on Wednesday outside the largest NATO base in the south that killed 23 people was “much more organized than we’ve seen before”.
But the U.S. defense chief sought to reassure soldiers that their sacrifices had not been in vain and Afghans that NATO’s drawdown did not mean they would be abandoned.
Noting the end of the U.S. war in Iraq, Panetta told soldiers gathered at the heavily fortified Kabul airport that “hopefully we’ll be able to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan as well.”
U.S. commanders have “put a very good plan in place” and Afghans worried about the withdrawal should know “that we’re not going any place”, he said in a reference to plans to keep a residual force in Afghanistan.
The post-2014 role, the size of which is yet to be determined, would include fighting “terrorism” and training and advising, he said.
“We’ve lost a lot people in battle... We’ve got to make damn sure they didn’t die in vain.”