By Kent Klein
White House officials are facing questions about the top U.S. military officer’s recent controversial remarks on the relationship between Pakistan’s government and an al-Qaida-linked militant group. The Obama administration wants Pakistan to break links with the Haqqani Network, but says it values Islamabad’s cooperation on security issues.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee last week the Haqqani Network is a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Mullen’s comment is consistent with the administration’s position, but that he would put it differently.
“It is not language that I would use. I think that the fact that there are links between the Pakistani government and the Haqqani network, the nature of those can be assessed and is complicated. But there is no question that the network has safe havens in Pakistan, and Pakistan has not taken action to eliminate those safe havens,” said Carney.
At a White House press briefing, President Barack Obama’s spokesman stressed the importance of Pakistan’s help in fighting terrorism in the region.
“The cooperation that we have had, even within the context of this complicated relationship, has produced very positive results that have improved security for the United States of America and its citizens abroad and soldiers abroad,” said Carney.
Some U.S. officials involved in administration policy in South Asia were quoted anonymously in Wednesday’s Washington Post newspaper as criticizing Mullen’s comments. The officials said the remarks were overstated, and contributed to an angry response in Pakistan.
Owen Sirrs is writing a book on ISI. The University of Montana professor said Mullen’s testimony seems to indicate that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has toughened his stand toward Pakistan.
“It always seemed like that of all the administration figures, Admiral Mullen was the one most willing to give ISI and the Pakistani army some benefit of the doubt. But what we are seeing in recent weeks is him backing away from that position and being much more outspoken about what ISI is up to against the Afghan government and our interests in Afghanistan,” said Sirrs.
Admiral Mullen’s term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs ends Friday. He will be replaced by Army General Martin Dempsey.
South Asia expert Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes Mullen has forced the White House to respond to his comments.
According to Markey, the administration may still be trying to figure out how to do so, and he says a softer position may be perceived in Pakistan as weakness.
“They will look weak in Pakistan. There is no winning outcome here for the White House if it is not happy about what Mullen said. And so, they are going to try to look to mitigate their losses, and I do not quite know how they intend to square that circle yet,” said Markey.
Anti-American sentiment has been high in Pakistan since CIA operatives killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, and more so since U.S. Navy Seals killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden near Islamabad in May.