“The government of Pakistan and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI” have chosen “to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy” to maintain leverage over Afghanistan’s future, Mullen testified during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also testified.
Mullen’s statement represented a sharp break with a long-standing administration policy of publicly playing down Pakistan’s official support for Taliban insurgents who operate from havens within its borders. U.S. officials have typically described Pakistan as a troublesome but valuable partner in the struggle against terrorism.
The testimony capped a week of increasingly critical administration statements in the wake of the recent attacks and reflected a rising conviction that a new strategy is needed.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar condemned Mullen’s allegations and issued what sounded like a veiled counter-threat, warning that the United States could ill afford to risk its relationship with Pakistan.
“If they are choosing to do so, it will be at their own cost,” Khar told the Pakistani television network Geo 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,” she said.
Even as they denounced Pakistan, Mullen and Panetta insisted that the recent attacks, among the most brazen of the 10-year-old war, were an indication of increasing Taliban desperation as U.S. military pressure has diminished the insurgents’ ability to conduct all-out offensives. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber with explosives concealed in his turban killed former Afghan president and leading peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul.
Rabbani’s killing is under investigation, said a U.S. official with access to intelligence from Afghanistan. He said he is “not aware” of any information linking the Haqqani group to that attack.
Mullen and Panetta deflected lawmakers’ questions about what actions the administration is prepared to take to stop Pakistan’s support for insurgents.
“We’ve made clear that we are going to do everything we have to do to defend our forces,” Panetta said. “I don’t think it would be helpful to describe what those options would look like and what operational steps we may or may not take.”