WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama cautioned Pakistan on Thursday that it's jeopardizing long-term relations with the United States — including billions of dollars in military and civilian aid — by maintaining ties with insurgent groups that are fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
"There's no doubt that, you know, we're not going to feel comfortable with a long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan if we don't think they're mindful of our interests as well," Obama told a White House news conference.
The comments were the president's sternest to date on the growing rift over U.S. charges that Pakistan's army-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, is abetting the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group that's blamed for an assault Sept. 13 on the American Embassy in Kabul and other mass-casualty attacks in recent years.
U.S. officials contend that ISI support for the network — as well as the sanctuaries that the group, the Taliban and other insurgent outfits enjoy on Pakistan's side of the border — are a major obstacle to stabilizing Afghanistan and bringing home the 90,000 American troops stationed there.
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U.S. officials concede that their efforts to win greater Pakistani cooperation on Afghanistan — including cracking down on the Haqqanis — have all but failed despite the launching of a "strategic dialogue" on long-term ties and increased American assistance to Islamabad via $1.5 billion in civilian aid and more than $2 billion in security assistance annually.
Obama noted that U.S. efforts to vanquish al Qaida — including missile strikes by drone aircraft — wouldn't have been "as successful" without cooperation from Islamabad in targeting the organization's hideouts in Pakistan's tribal area.
But the president then said publicly what U.S. officials have been saying privately for years: that Pakistan is backing Afghan insurgents in a bid to see a friendly government installed in Kabul to prevent its rival, India, from consolidating its influence there after U.S.-led international combat forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
"I think they have hedged their bets in terms of what Afghanistan would look like," Obama said. "And part of their bets is having interactions with some of the unsavory characters who think they might end up regaining power in Afghanistan after coalition forces have left."
His use of the term "unsavory characters" clearly referred to the Taliban and the Haqqani network, whose leader served in the Taliban regime that was ousted by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The issue broke into the open last month when Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who's since retired, called the Haqqanis a "veritable arm" of the ISI, the first time a U.S. official had publicly made that charge so directly.
Pakistan has denied the charges repeatedly.
Obama said: "What we've tried to persuade Pakistan of is that it is in their interest to have a stable Afghanistan; that they should not be feeling threatened by a stable, independent Afghanistan. We've still got work to do."
He said the United States would "constantly evaluate" its relationship with Pakistan but indicated that a substantial cut in U.S. military and civilian aid — which has totaled some $20 billion since 2001 — was unlikely because he was "hesitant to punish flood victims in Pakistan because of poor decisions by their intelligence services."
Pakistani officials assert that their country, sandwiched between India to the east and Afghanistan to the west, faces encirclement if New Delhi bolsters ties with Kabul. Many experts, however, suspect that the Pakistani army covets access to Afghan territory as a rear area for its forces in the event of war with India, a policy known as "strategic depth."
On Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership pact with India that includes Indian training for Afghan security forces. That led Pakistan to warn Afghanistan on Thursday against further "point-scoring, playing politics or grandstanding."
Many Afghans and some U.S. officials worry that the U.S. combat troop pullout will lead to a new Afghan civil war that would see Pakistan back the Taliban — who are dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group — while India sided with ethnic minorities, just as it did before 2001. A new proxy war could raise the danger of a direct clash between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons.
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