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US officials say there is growing evidence that Pakistan's intelligence agency encouraged a Pakistan-based militant group, the Haqqani network, to carry out last week's attack on the US Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The US and Pakistan have long been at odds over the links between Pakistan's intelligence agency and military, and Pakistani militant groups such as the Haqqani network. With the US preparing for a drawdown in Afghanistan, the presence of militant groups is now a top concern, as is Pakistan's quiet support for them.
The US has tried to pressure Pakistan into breaking its ties to militants, but has so far been unsuccessful – Pakistan sees the militant groups as necessary leverage in the region.
For several weeks after the American raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, the relationship between the two countries seemed on the verge of severing, but relations improved over the summer. However, last week's attack in Kabul sent them spiraling downward once again amid US criticism of Pakistan for failing to crack down on the Haqqani network, Reuters reports.
"We covered ... the need for the Haqqani Network to disengage, specifically the need for the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence agency] to disconnect from Haqqani and from this proxy war that they're fighting," [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen] said in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday.
"The ISI has been doing this – working for – supporting proxies for an extended period of time. It is a strategy in the country and I think that strategic approach has to shift in the future."
"The increasingly tough U.S. rhetoric – particularly the accusation of a proxy relationship – reflects a US belief that Pakistani intelligence in recent months has more aggressively facilitated attacks by the Haqqanis on Afghan and American targets inside Afghanistan," a US military official told the Associated Press.
Pakistan's thinly veiled support for militant groups is particularly concerning, with the US drawdown in Afghanistan and peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government on the horizon.
Shamila Chaudhary, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, writes in Foreign Policy, Pakistan is "at the heart" of any peaceful resolution in Afghanistan. The US may turn to drastic measures against Pakistan in order to stabilize Afghanistan.
How far would the United States go to prevent such attacks? Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Sept. 16 that unilateral action in Pakistan by the United States should not be ruled out. The reality is, however, that the United States needs Pakistan, not least for logistics support for the estimated 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
That being said, [former Afghan President Burhanuddin] Rabbani's death and the attacks on the US embassy and NATO headquarters come at a time of great transition for the United States in Afghanistan, but more importantly in its relationship with Pakistan. US policymakers and Congress have reached their limits in overlooking Islamabad's tacit relationships with militant groups in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. Doing so comes at too great a cost to the continuing efforts in Afghanistan, not to mention President Barack Obama's planned force drawdown. The United States will no longer tolerate Pakistan's rumored role in these attacks; but the reality on the ground indicates that Pakistan's patience with the United States has also run out.
A US Senate committee voted this week to make $1 billion in US aid to Pakistan conditional on a crackdown on militant groups, reflecting the degree of frustration in Washington, the BBC reports. The House of Representatives and Senate still need to approve the measure.
Pakistan's continued involvement with militants is its way of hedging its bets in Afghanistan, where negotiations are happening without Pakistan, Chaudhary writes.
Privately, however, the view espoused by the Pakistani political and military establishment remains that Washington has excluded Islamabad from a seat at the negotiating table and, as a result, Pakistan has no choice but to continue to hedge against a reconciliation process that potentially does not work in its favor. Chief among Pakistan's fears is that the Afghan government would look favorably toward India, allowing for an expanded Indian diplomatic and development presence in Afghanistan that would threaten Pakistan's sense of security. Ultimately, Pakistan's recurring links to attacks on U.S. and Afghan interests signal Islamabad's view that the United States cannot go at it without Pakistan -- if the United States continues to exclude it from peace talks with the Taliban, Pakistan can undo the entire process.