WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama said on Friday that Admiral Mike Mullen was expressing “frustration” over alleged terrorist safe havens in Pakistan when the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the Haqqani network was an arm of the country’s intelligence service.
“The intelligence is not as clear as we might like in terms of what exactly that relationship is,” said Mr Obama in a radio interview when asked about Admiral Mullen’s testimony at a Senate hearing last week.
“But my attitude is, whether there is active engagement with Haqqani on the part of the Pakistanis, or rather just passively allowing them to operate ... they’ve got to take care of this problem,” he said.
In the same interview, the president said the US would continue to push Pakistan to do more to curb militants based in its border regions while maintaining intelligence cooperation with the country.
“We’ve been very firm with them about needing to go after safe havens inside of Pakistan, but we’ve tried to also preserve the intelligence cooperation that we’ve obtained that’s allowed us to go after Al Qaeda in a very effective way,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that the relationship is not where it needs to be and we are going to keep on pressing them to recognise that it is in their interest, not just ours, to make sure that extremists are not operating within their borders.”
Earlier in the day, Admiral Mullen, while transferring his responsibilities to the new military chief Gen Martin Dempsey at a ceremony in Virginia, said he had already urged his successor to stay engaged with Pakistan.
“I urged Marty to remember the importance of Pakistan to all of this; to try and do a better job than I did with that vexing, and yet vital, relationship,” said the admiral.
“I continue to believe that there is no solution in the region without Pakistan, and no stable future in the region without a partnership.”
The outgoing US military chief did not refer to his earlier statement at a Senate hearing last week where he said that the Haqqani network of terrorists was “a veritable arm” of the ISI and the Pakistani intelligence agency had directed the group’s recent attacks at US installations in Kabul.
The remarks caused a diplomatic storm, forcing the White House to say that it did not endorse the admiral’s language although it too believed that the Haqqanis were using their bases in Pakistan to attack US and Afghan targets.
At a State Department briefing, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged people to “look at the entirety” of Admiral Mullen’s testimony.
“He did raise serious questions, which our government has raised with the Pakistanis about the continuing safe haven for terrorists that strike across the border in Afghanistan against Afghans, Americans, Nato Isaf troops, civilians working there, as well as within Pakistan,” she noted.
“But Admiral Mullen also said that this is a very critical consequential relationship. We have a lot of interests that are in common, most particularly the fight against terrorism.”
The US, she said, had told Pakistan that it wanted to see an end to safe havens and “any kind of support from anywhere for terrorists inside Pakistan, and we also want to continue to work to put our relationship on a stronger footing”.
Questions about this new US approach were also asked at a White House briefing on Friday as reporters tried to draw a link between Awlaki’s death in Yemen, and drone attacks in Pakistan.
Responding to the questions, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that like in Yemen, America’s “complicated but important” relationship with Pakistan also had helped in weakening Al Qaeda.
Mr Carney noted that on Thursday, the US had blacklisted several key members of the Haqqani network and continued to review the proposal for blacklisting the entire group.
“I don’t have a time for you,” said the White House official when asked if he could say how long it would take to declare the network a foreign terrorist organisation.
When asked why the US refused to acknowledge the drone attacks that had killed Awlaki and other key Al Qaeda leaders, Mr Carney said: “We are asked questions like that all the time and our response is the same, which is that we cooperate with partners around the world, whether it’s in Pakistan or Yemen, in taking the fight to Al Qaeda, and that cooperation takes many different forms.”