LAHORE, Pakistan — The American military's top officer used an interview on Pakistani television Wednesday night to accuse the country's spy agency of supporting an Afghan insurgent group that's blamed for killing U.S. and Afghan forces, as well as civilians, in some of the bloodiest attacks in Afghanistan.
The remarks by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff, were the first time a senior U.S. official has issued in such blunt terms in public what U.S. officials privately have long charged is Pakistani double-dealing on the war against Islamic militants in Afghanistan.
Coming from Mullen, who's known as the "good cop" on the U.S. side of the rocky relationship, the comments also seemed to acknowledge the failure of an Obama administration policy to persuade Pakistan's military to cut ties with Afghan insurgents and close their bases on its side of the border in return for billions of dollars in U.S. aid, training and weaponry.
The development potentially holds serious implications for the U.S.-led military campaign to crush the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. The administration's strategy there has in part counted on improved cooperation from the Pakistani military in routing militants from its tribal region.
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Pakistan's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, has a "relationship" with the Haqqani network, a group close to the Afghan Taliban and al Qaida, that ends up costing the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Mullen said.
"The ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network. That doesn't mean everybody in the ISI. But it's there," Mullen said in an interview broadcast Wednesday on Geo News, Pakistan's leading news channel. "I believe over time that's got to change."
He made similar remarks in separate interviews with two Pakistani newspapers.
Mullen's comments come amid the iciest ties between Islamabad and Washington since 2001, when the Pakistani military ended its patronage of the Afghan Taliban, backed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and joined the U.S.-led drive to crush al Qaida, whose leaders fled into Pakistan's tribal area.
Moeen Yusuf, an expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said the two sides were about as close to a "rupture" in relations as they've ever been. A rupture would be costly for both sides: the U.S. relies on the ISI for intelligence on al Qaida and Islamabad depends on the U.S. for crucial economic and military assistance.
Mullen's remarks, he said, show "just how bad the relationship is all around," Yusuf said.
An administration official in Washington said both sides are trying to find a way to reach common ground.
"What is important in this case is that both sides remember that we face a common threat from extremists," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It is in both our best interests to keep the channels of communication open and to continue to work together to deal with that threat."
But Pakistan and the U.S. have different objectives in Afghanistan: The former wants a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul that resists influence from India, while the latter seeks a quasi stable country to which al Qaida can't return to plot new attacks.
The testy relationship has been frayed by a series of events during the past 11 months, culminating in the arrest in January of Raymond Davis, an American contractor working for the CIA, after he shot dead two Pakistani men in Lahore he said were trying to rob him at gunpoint.
Davis' arrest exposed secret CIA operations against Islamic extremist groups considered close to the ISI, which has historically nurtured such groups to fight as its proxies in India and Afghanistan.
The downturn coincided with a near-cessation of CIA-operated drone strikes on suspected al Qaida and other extremists in the tribal area, although U.S. officials insist that there's no connection between the Davis incident and the reduction in drone attacks.
Mullen's remarks seemed carefully calculated and weren't prompted by a direct question.
Usually, Mullen, who's made 22 visits to Pakistan, has used his public pronouncements to trumpet the strength of his personal relationship with Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. He diligently avoided making any incendiary remarks even when other U.S. officials were critical. The ISI works directly under the Pakistani military.
But on Wednesday Mullen pulled no punches.
"Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen," he said. "So that's at the core — it's not the only thing — but that's at the core that I think is the most difficult part of the (U.S.-Pakistan) relationship," Mullen said in an interview with Dawn, Pakistan's biggest English-language daily.
Washington considers the drone strikes, the only weapon available to the U.S. against al Qaida and other extremists holed up in Pakistan's tribal area, to be highly effective. However, the attacks have often targeted the Haqqani group and an allied Pakistani militant outfit, led by Gul Bahadur, in the North Waziristan part of the tribal area.
Pakistan denies supporting Haqqani or other militant groups but admits keeping open channels of communication with them, as spy agencies often do. The Pakistani military says it's too stretched elsewhere to mount an operation against the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan.
The leader of the network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a leading U.S.-backed guerrilla commander during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, but aligned himself with the Taliban after the militia seized power in 1996, becoming a minister and then a military commander. His son, Sirajuddin, now oversees the group's day-to-day operations in the tribal area and eastern Afghanistan.
The group is blamed for some of the most spectacular attacks and bombings staged in eastern Afghanistan. They include a July 2008 suicide bombing against the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed 58 people and which U.S. officials charged involved ISI participation, an allegation Islamabad denied.
Washington also is deeply concerned about the ISI's relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a jihadist group that was focused on attacking India, but that Washington now thinks has global ambitions and is becoming a surrogate for al Qaida.
It's thought that Davis was involved in a CIA operation to spy on Lashkar-e-Taiba. Mullen said in the interviews that he was concerned about the group and a "syndication of terrorist organizations."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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