ISLAMABAD — Pakistan lashed out at the U.S. for accusing the country’s most powerful intelligence agency of supporting extremist attacks against American targets in Afghanistan — the most serious allegations against Islamabad since the beginning of the Afghan war.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar dismissed the claims as mere allegations. She warned the U.S. that it risked losing Pakistan as an ally and could not afford to alienate the Pakistani government or its people.
“If they are choosing to do so, it will be at their own cost,” Khar told Geo TV on Thursday from New York City, where she is attending a U.N. General Assembly meeting. “Anything which is said about an ally, about a partner publicly to recriminate it, to humiliate it is not acceptable.”
Khar’s comments were first aired in Pakistan on Friday.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani responded to the U.S. criticism by saying Washington was in a tough spot.
“They can’t live with us. They can’t live without us,” Gilani told reporters Friday in the southern city of Karachi. “So, I would say to them that if they can’t live without us, they should increase contacts with us to remove misunderstandings.”
The Pakistani officials were responding to congressional testimony by the top U.S. military officer about Pakistan.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency Thursday of supporting the Haqqani insurgent network in planning and executing the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan last week and a truck bomb that wounded 77 American soldiers days earlier.
He also said the U.S. had credible information that Haqqani extremists, with help from the ISI, were responsible for the June 28 attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and other small but effective assaults.
The Haqqani insurgent network is widely believed to be based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border. The group has historical ties to Pakistani intelligence, dating back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The U.S. military has said the Haqqani network, which has ties to both al-Qaida and the Taliban, poses the greatest threat to American troops in Afghanistan.
Mullen insisted that the Haqqani insurgent network “acts as a veritable arm” of the ISI, undermining the uneasy U.S.-Pakistan relationship forged in the terror fight and endangering American troops in the almost 10-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is “exporting violence” and threatening any success in Afghanistan, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“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 tied Pakistan’s intelligence agency directly 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.
Mullen did not provide specific evidence backing up his accusations or indicate what the U.S. would do if Pakistan refuses to cut ties to the Haqqani network. The U.S. has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan attack the insurgents and prevent them from using the country’s territory.
Pakistan has denied ties to the group in the past and has said it cannot attack them because its troops are stretched too thin fighting other militants in the country’s semiautonomous tribal region. Many analysts believe, however, that Pakistan wants to remain on good terms with the militants because they could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Mullen’s comments carry particular weight since the Joint Chiefs chairman has nurtured ties with the Pakistanis during his tenure, meeting with officials more than two dozen times. His congressional testimony was his last before he retires next week.
Mullen reaffirmed his support for continued U.S. engagement with the nuclear-armed Pakistan and warned of the consequences if the relationship should break down. But his comments could make that engagement harder and continue a recent downward trend in ties between the two countries.
The relationship took one of its hardest hits when U.S. commandos sneaked into Pakistan on May 2 and killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in a garrison town not far from Islamabad.
The covert raid outraged the Pakistani government because it was not told about it beforehand, while bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad raised further suspicions among U.S. officials about the country’s duplicity in the anti-terror fight.