Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the United States has no choice but to maintain close relations with Pakistan, despite government links with Islamic militants including the Haqqani network. The State Department, meanwhile, put sanctions on another Haqqani network commander.
Panetta, who took over as defense secretary in June after two years of heading the CIA, declined comment on news reports that Pakistan allowed China to inspect the wreckage of an advanced U.S. helicopter lost in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But at a public forum with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Washington’s National Defense University, the defense chief was unusually candid about U.S. problem issues with Pakistan.
Panetta said Pakistan has "relationships” with the Haqqani network - militants based in western Pakistan who conduct cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and with Lashkar-e-Taiba militants who have attacked India.
Both groups are listed by the United States as terrorist organizations. Despite complaints that Pakistan has withheld visas for U.S. citizens being posted there, Panetta said the relationship remains essential.
“There is no choice but to maintain a relationship with Pakistan," said Panetta. "Why? Because we are fighting a war there. We are fighting al-Qaida there. And they do give us some cooperation in that effort. Because they do represent an important force in that region. Because they do happen to be a nuclear power that has nuclear weapons, and we have to be concerned about what happens with those nuclear weapons. So for all of those reasons, we’ve got to maintain a relationship with Pakistan.”
Secretary of State Clinton said the Obama administration considers relations with Pakistan to be of “paramount importance.”
She said there have been “challenges” in bilateral ties for decades with valid complaints on both sides, and that she credits the Islamabad government with lately recognizing its shared interest with Washington in confronting terrorism.
“I was very pleased when the Pakistanis moved into [the] Swat [Valley] and cleaned out a lot of what had become a kind of Pakistani Taliban stronghold," said Clinton. "And then they began to take some troops off their border with India, to put more resources into the fight against the Pakistani Taliban. Now, as Leon [Panetta] says, we have some other targets that we discuss with them - the Haqqanis, for example. And yet it’s been a relatively short period of time, two-and-a-half years, when they have begun to reorient themselves militarily against what is, in our view, an internal threat to them.”
The State Department on Tuesday designated a key Haqqani network commander - Mullah Sangeen Zadran - a terrorist under a 2001 White House executive order, freezing any U.S. assets he has and barring Americans from business dealings with him.
At the same time, Sangeen was designated a terrorist by the U.N. sanctions committee, which will subject him to a global travel ban, an asset freeze and an arms embargo.
A State Department statement said Sangeen, is a “shadow governor” of Afghanistan’s southeast Paktika province and a senior lieutenant of network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. It said Sangeen has coordinated the movement of hundreds of foreign fighters into that country and that he is linked to numerous bomb attacks and kidnappings.