KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday delivered the sharpest U.S. warning yet to Pakistani leaders: Crack down on the Afghan insurgents based on your soil or pay "a very big price."
"We're looking to the Pakistanis to lead on this because there's no place to go any longer. The terrorists are on both sides" of the Afghan-Pakistani border, Clinton said.
"No one should be in any way mistaken about allowing this to continue without paying a very big price," she said.
Clinton, making an unannounced stop in Afghanistan before traveling to Pakistan late Thursday, said she and a high-powered U.S. delegation that included CIA Director David Petraeus would press leaders in Islamabad to directly tackle the Haqqani network and other militant groups operating from Pakistan's tribal areas. That's likely to set the stage for an extremely contentious visit. Earlier this week, Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, warned that the United States should "think 10 times" before launching a military operation on the soil of a nuclear-armed country.
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While Clinton didn't specify what action the United States might take, her remarks in a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace here underscored the Obama administration's growing frustration with Pakistan as it grasps for a way to end the decade-long Afghan war and bring home the 90,000 U.S. troops remaining here.
After a summer of devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul that U.S. officials blamed on militants based inside Pakistan — including the assassination of the Afghan government's chief peace negotiator and a daylong assault on the American Embassy — the Obama administration has stepped up demands for greater Pakistani cooperation in fighting the Taliban and the Haqqani group, which U.S. officials allege is supported by Pakistan's military-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
The U.S. warnings have galled officials in Pakistan, which is reeling from its own domestic insurgency and a collapsing economy and is reluctant to create additional enemies. In Pakistan, U.S. demands that it "do more" to fight extremists are portrayed as an attempt to shift the blame for American failures in Afghanistan.
Indeed, U.S. officials acknowledge that they need Pakistan's cooperation, and Clinton reiterated calls for greater unity among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She described the Obama administration's strategy as "fight, talk, build" — fighting the militants who reject peace negotiations, engaging in talks with those willing to put down their weapons, and continuing to build an Afghan government still plagued by dysfunction and rampant corruption.
The "fight" part clearly continues: In recent days U.S. and Afghan forces launched fresh operations against insurgents in eastern Afghanistan — primarily members of the Haqqani network who had crossed over the border from their safe haven in Pakistan, Clinton said. NATO officials blame that group for nearly a dozen major terrorist attacks in Kabul this year, including the embassy attack, which left seven Afghans dead.
While NATO officials in Afghanistan have dismissed Pakistani fears that an expanded U.S.-led military operation could include forays by American troops across the border, Clinton said, "We have to deal with the safe havens on both sides."
"We must send a clear, unequivocal message to the government and the people of Pakistan that they must be part of the solution. And that means ridding their own country of terrorists who kill their own people and who cross the border to kill in Afghanistan," Clinton said.
It was unclear what actions the U.S. might resort to, but the officials accompanying Clinton — Petraeus and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — were expected to tell their Pakistani counterparts that if Pakistan doesn't do more to disrupt Haqqani operations, the U.S. will step up attacks on Afghan insurgents inside Pakistan by unmanned aerial drones and resort more quickly to retaliatory strikes by Afghanistan-based artillery on insurgents firing from Pakistan.
Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan also have badly deteriorated since the assassination of Karzai's chief negotiator in peace talks with the Taliban, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, which Clinton called "despicable." Senior NATO officials blamed the Taliban for the killing — carried out by a man who claimed to be carrying a message of peace from the group's leadership in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
After the killing, Karzai said that peace talks with the Taliban were "futile" and that Afghanistan could only negotiate with Pakistan's cooperation. On Thursday, he reiterated that the Taliban "to a very, very great extent ... are controlled by establishments in Pakistan," and he called on Pakistan to provide "an address for the Taliban leadership, a place that we can go to, a door that we can knock on, a telephone number that we can call and where we can find a Taliban representative that can talk to us, Afghan to Afghan."
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Follow Shashank Bengali on Twitter: @SBengali