U.S. to Pakistan: Get Haqqani, or we will

An undated photo of Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of the Haqqani network, a fundamentalist Islamic group based near the Afghan border in Pakistan.

By Washington Post writer Karen DeYoung

The Obama administration has sharply warned Pakistan that it must cut ties with a leading Taliban group based in the tribal region along the Afghan border and help eliminate its leaders, according to officials from both countries.

In what amounts to an ultimatum, administration officials have indicated that the United States will act unilaterally if Pakistan does not comply.

The message, delivered in high-level meetings and public statements over the past several days, reflects the belief of a growing number of senior administration officials that a years-long strategy of using persuasion and military assistance to influence Pakistani behavior has been ineffective.

White House officials and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta are said to be adamant in their determination to change the approach, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal administration deliberations.

Although he declined to provide details, Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that "we are going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces" in Afghanistan from attacks by the Haqqani network, which has had a long relationship with Pakistan's intelligence service.

Pakistan hits back at Panetta's criticism

"We've continued to state that this cannot happen," Panetta said of the Haqqani network strikes, including a Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

As Panetta spoke, new CIA Director David H. Petraeus was holding an unpublicized private meeting in Washington with his Pakistani counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who met with Pakistan's army chief in Madrid on Friday, said that the "proxy connection" between Pakistani intelligence and the Haqqani network was the focus of those discussions.

Analysis: Why al Qaeda is still a threat in Afghanistan

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is among a minority of administration officials still willing to express public sympathy for Pakistan's weak civilian leaders as they face a growing threat from domestic terrorism and the politically powerful military.

But during a 3½ hour meeting in New York on Sunday with her Pakistani counterpart, she warned that Pakistan is fast losing friends in Washington, according to one official deeply familiar with the session.

Clinton left the meeting with Pakistan's assurance that "they recognize that these people are threats to Pakistan as well, and that no one should think that their relationship with the Haqqanis was more important than their relationship with the United States," a senior administration official said.

But another administration official emphasized the severity of the U.S. officials' warning. "We are expressing the firm conviction that things have to change ...in Miranshah and in Islamabad, as well," this official said. Miranshah is the main population center in Pakistan's North Waziristan region, where the Haqqani leadership is based. CIA drone attacks elsewhere in the region have avoided the city for fear of civilian casualties.

"It's a reality that they're not living in tents in the open," the official acknowledged. But with Pakistani cooperation, "we know that there are ways to get at extremist leaders anywhere," the official said, citing the past capture of senior al Qaeda leaders during joint intelligence operations in the far larger cities of Karachi and Quetta.