KABUL - Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned Pakistan on Thursday that the United States is losing patience for its refusal to eliminate safe havens for insurgents who attack US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Panetta lashed out at Pakistan and the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network during a brief visit to Kabul overshadowed by fury over a NATO air strike that allegedly killed 18 civilians, an issue that the Pentagon chief did not address in public.
Panetta left Kabul less than five hours after his arrival, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged to cut short a trip to Beijing and head home over the deaths of around 40 civilians Wednesday in the air strike and a suicide bombing.
Panetta’s visit to Kabul to assess the state of the war and plans to withdraw US combat troops by the end of 2014 coincided with an increase in violence.
“Even though we are seeing an uptick in violence in recent days, the overall level of violence is down from past years,” he said.
The Haqqani group, a faction linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that is believed to be based in Pakistan’s tribal district of North Waziristan, is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan’s 10-year war.
Panetta urged Pakistan to go after the Haqqani militant network and said Washington would exert diplomatic pressure and take any other steps needed to protect its forces.
“It is an increasing concern that safe havens exist and those like the Haqqanis make use of that to attack our forces,” he said.
“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 for that reason. It is extremely important for Pakistan to take action to prevent (giving) the Haqqanis safe havens, and for terrorists to use their country as a safety net to conduct attacks on our forces,” Panetta told a news conference with his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak.
“We intend obviously to take whatever steps necessary to protect our forces. That’s a principle we always stand by. For that to happen, we have to have Pakistan cooperation to take steps to control the Haqqani threat from their side of border.”
Panetta blamed the group for an attack last week on a US base in the east in which several insurgents, including some wearing suicide vests, attacked it with rocket propelled grenades.
The attack was foiled, but it underlined the challenge facing Western and Afghan forces in the east where insurgents take advantage of the steep, often forested terrain and the Pakistani border to launch attacks and then slip across the border.
“What happened the other day in Salerno is an indication that they are going to continue to come at us and let me be clear anybody who attacks US soldiers is our enemy and we are going to take them on. We have got to be able to defend ourselves,” he told US troops earlier at Kabul airport.
The comments came as Washington appears to be looking to other allies in the region for help in the face of Pakistan’s foot-dragging. Panetta arrived in Kabul after a visit to India where he urged New Delhi to take a more active role in Afghanistan.
The Afghan and US governments have said they do not believe the war in Afghanistan can be won without safe havens in Pakistan being dismantled. Pakistanis have accused them of deflecting blame for the increasingly deadly war.
Panetta told US troops in a speech at the heavily fortified Kabul airport that the decade-long war was at “a turning point”.
He 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.
US 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.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implicitly defended Washington’s use of drone strikes to kill suspected militants, just days after one of the aircraft killed one of Al Qaeda’s most powerful figures, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in Pakistan.
The strikes by the remotely piloted unmanned craft have also angered Pakistan’s government and contributed to unrelenting tension between Washington and Islamabad, which says they kill civilians and violate its sovereignty.
“We will always maintain our right to use force against groups such as Al Qaeda that have attacked us and still threaten us with imminent attack,” Clinton said in Istanbul.
“In doing so, we will comply with the applicable law, including the laws of war, and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life,” she told the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a US- and Turkish-chaired group.
Her comments echo those of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who said in April such targeted drone strikes in other countries were legal.
“As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense,” Brennan said in the speech to a Washington think-tank.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested the withdrawal timeline added urgency to the need to tackle the Haqqani threat.
“We’ve got to get (eastern Afghanistan) and the Haqqani influence reduced in order to meet our timelines for the transition that we’re moving toward, and at the end of ‘14,” Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon.
US reaching ‘limits of patience’ with Pakistan: Panetta