KABUL - The United States stepped up pressure on Pakistan on Thursday as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said “we are reaching the limits of our patience’’ with a nominal ally that continues to provide a safe haven to Al Qaeda-linked militants.
It was the latest sign that the United States is getting tougher with Pakistan after years of muting criticism and looking the other way on the premise that an uneasy friendship was better than making the nuclear-armed country an outright enemy.
As US forces draw down in neighboring Afghanistan, the Americans appear to be pushing Pakistan harder than ever before to squeeze insurgents who find sanctuary within its borders.
Panetta, in the Afghan capital, told reporters he was visiting Kabul to take stock of progress in the war and discuss plans for the troop drawdown. But he used a press conference to strike across the border instead, saying the Pakistani government needs to do more - and soon - to root out the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani terrorist network.
Panetta repeatedly emphasized US frustration with attackers crossing the border from Pakistan. It is essential that Pakistan stop “allowing terrorists to use their country as a safety net in order to conduct their attacks on our forces,’’ he said alongside Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
“We have made that very clear time and time again and we will continue to do that, but as I said, we are reaching the limits of our patience,’’ Panetta said.
The United States clearly wants Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis before the bulk of US troops have left the region by the end of 2014.
After that, the Afghans would have more trouble contending with the militants, who carry out large-scale attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.
In Washington, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that the United States needs to continue working with Pakistan, despite frustrations.
“It’s our view that those Haqqani, notably, the Haqqani network, is as big a threat to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan and to us, but we haven’t been able to find common ground on that point. So that’s been very frustrating,’’ he said.
He added that the United States is “extraordinarily dissatisfied with the effect that Pakistan has had on the Haqqanis,’’ but also mindful that Pakistan has taken on other insurgent groups at great cost to their own troops.
“There may be an increasing realization within the US government that we have a few more years to really go after this problem and time is running out,’’ said Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Panetta’s remarks capped a week of some of the boldest language and actions by the administration against its stated ally.
Just a day before, he stood in the capital of Pakistan’s arch rival, India, and declared that drone strikes against terror suspects would continue, dismissing Pakistan’s assertions of sovereignty by noting that US sovereignty was jeopardized by terrorists as well.
A senior US official acknowledged Thursday that the recent increase in drone strikes on insurgents in Pakistan - targeting mostly Al Qaeda but other militants as well - is partly a result of frustration with Islamabad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.
And earlier this week, NATO sealed agreements to ship tons of supplies out of Afghanistan through northern and western countries, bypassing Pakistan, which has kept its borders closed to NATO trucks in response to the killing of 24 Pakistani troops by NATO forces.
Perhaps most pointedly, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan was not invited until the last minute to the NATO summit that President Obama hosted in Chicago last month, and did not get the private meeting with the US leader that he wanted.
Obama also publicly thanked Central Asian nations and Russia for recent help in war supply. He did not mention Pakistan’s years of help doing the same thing before the gates were closed last fall.
The United States has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to support both its government and the fight against Islamist militants.
The Pakistani military has battled insurgents who attack Pakistani targets but has largely avoided taking on insurgents like the Haqqanis whose sights are set across the border.
The Haqqanis, who also have ties to the Taliban, have emerged as perhaps the biggest threat to stability in Afghanistan.
They have been blamed for several attacks on Americans including last year’s assault with rocket-propelled grenades against the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul.
Panetta said the United States continues to see Haqqani fighters moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan to attack American forces - most recently on June 1 when he said they detonated a truck bomb and then tried to storm Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost Province.