WASHINGTON – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has warned General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani many times over the years that he must do something to stop attacks on Afghanistan from terrorists coming from inside Pakistani safe havens.
And once again, amid the recent spike in high-profile violence across Afghanistan, Mullen sat in likely his final Pentagon press conference Tuesday before retiring this month and said that he “very strongly” pressed Kayani when they met Friday evening in Spain.
It may have been the last time.
“The clarity with which I addressed this issue, there can be no question and no doubt,” he said.
Mullen’s comments come after several Haqqani attacks on Afghan and U.S. personnel have hit across the country and the heart of Kabul in recent weeks. A suicide bomb attack in Kabul on Tuesday killed former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a key leader of Afghan peace talks.
Asked what the Defense Department would do to respond to the violence, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, sitting at Mullen’s side, said, “We are going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces,” yet he refused to reveal specifics of what the U.S. will do, particularly in Pakistani territory.
“But our biggest concern right now is to put as much pressure as possible on the Pakistanis to exercise control from their side of the border,” Panetta said. “We've continued to state that this cannot happen. We cannot have the Haqqanis coming across the border, attacking our forces, attacking [Afghans] and then disappearing back into a safe haven. That is not tolerable.”
Panetta said the U.S. would continue to press Pakistani officials to act against Haqqani terrorists and noted Mullen’s talk with Kayani on Friday.
“I think they’ve heard the message,” he said, “but we’ll see.”
It's not a new message, Mullen conceded. He has staked much of his reputation and chairmanship on building and sustaining a relationship with Kayani. The chairman has made more than 20 trips to Pakistan during his tenure as senior military advisor to two U.S. presidents, to catch up for lost time after U.S. service personnel were forbidden from interacting with Pakistan military officers for years.
But Pakistani relations with the U.S. reached their lowest point after U.S. forces entered their territory to kill Osama bin Laden in May. At the time, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pakistanis were “humiliated” and deserved some patience from Washington, and U.S. officials played down what they know about links between Pakistan officials and Pakistani terrorist networks.
Now Pentagon officials have publicly linked recent car bombs, suicide bombers and last week’s attack on the U.S. embassy and ISAF headquarters to the Haqqani network, which Mullen said on Tuesday had a "proxy connection" to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
So, at the end of Mullen’s term and career, was it the right approach, or should the U.S. have treated Pakistan and Kayani with a tougher fist all along?
“I think the strength of having met with him so many times is that we have sustained the relationship when things are going better, as well as when things are not going well,” Mullen said. “And recently, they haven't gone well, but we've been able to sustain that and start to move it again in a more positive direction."
The work continues. After Mullen spoke Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. and Pakistan have agreed to slash the number of American troops in Pakistan to just 100 to 150, and special operations forces trainers from 140 to 10.