Pakistan hits back at Panetta's terror criticism

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to reporters after touring the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Sept. 6, 2011, in New York City. Getty Images

ISLAMABAD - American criticism of Islamabad's failure to pursue the Haqqani militant network blamed for this week's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul risks damaging anti-terror cooperation between the two countries, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry warned Thursday.

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Washington wants to degrade the insurgency in Afghanistan before handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces and pulling out. Pakistan's reluctance to attack the Haqqani group, which U.S. officials say has safe havens in Pakistan and is behind much of the violence in Afghanistan, is a major source of tension.

On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other U.S. officials said the Haqqani group was behind the 20-hour assault on the embassy in Kabul. Panetta expressed frustration with Pakistan and issued what was construed in Pakistan as a veiled warning that Washington may take unilateral action against the militants.

Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua said Thursday that Panetta's remarks were "out of line with the cooperation that exists between the two countries in the war against terrorism." Pakistan's army, which controls defense and foreign policy, declined comment on his remarks.

Islamabad has resisted attacking the Haqqanis because they do not pose a direct threat to Pakistan. The army is engaged in a bloody fight with other militant groups. It fears that making enemies of the Haqqanis now could tip the country into even greater chaos.

The army also believes it will be able to use the group, with which it has ties going back to the U.S.-backed resistance against Soviet rule in Afghanistan, to ensure its arch-enemy India does not gain a foothold there once the American troops leave.

Panetta said it was unacceptable that the Haqqanis are able to launch attacks and then flee to safe havens across the border in Pakistan. "The message they (the Pakistanis) need to know is: we're going to do everything we can to defend our forces," Panetta told reporters.

U.S. and Afghan officials say the Haqqanis are behind many of the high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital in recent years, including a 2009 assault on the Indian embassy. The two nations have alleged that the group is assisted by Pakistan's powerful spy agency, a charge Pakistan denies.

The United States has fired scores of missiles at Haqqani fighters in North Waziristan since 2008, killing many low and midlevel fighters. Those attacks were initially tolerated by Pakistani authorities but have developed into another irritant in ties.

In recent months, Pakistani officials have alleged that militants are crossing over from Afghanistan and attacking Pakistani troops and civilians, leading them to complain of "safe havens" in Afghanistan. Janjua raised this issue, saying NATO and the U.S. should also address it.

Washington has given Islamabad $20 billion in aid since 2001, most of it to the military, to try to secure its cooperation. It can't send ground troops across the border to attack the Haqqanis because that would likely cause a nationalist backlash that could destabilize Pakistan and create divisions in the army, where many soldiers do not support the top brass' alliance with Washington.

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