Panetta: US losing patience with Pakistan on militancy

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta (right) with US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker (centre) and the head of Nato forces in Afghanistan General John Allen (left) upon his arrival in Kabul
Image caption The defence secretary was outspoken in his criticism of Pakistan

Washington is running out of patience with Pakistan over alleged safe havens for Taliban militants, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has warned.

On an unannounced trip to Kabul, he said Islamabad must act against the Haqqani militant network, which attacks Nato troops based in Afghanistan.

Mr Panetta's visit comes amid a recent rise in insurgent attacks in the war against the Taliban, including one on Wednesday in which 22 people died.

Pakistan denies providing safe havens.

Pakistani officials have previously pointed to army operations against militant organisations in tribal areas, adding that many hundreds of Pakistani civilians and troops have died at the hands of such groups.

Washington has for many years urged Islamabad to deal with the militants based in its tribal regions.

Increasingly strained

"We are reaching the limits of our patience here," Mr Panetta said after talks with Afghanistan's defence minister.

He singled out the Haqqani militant network, which is widely believed to be based in Pakistan's volatile north-western tribal areas, and has been blamed for some of the most audacious attacks on Afghan soil in recent years.

On Wednesday, suicide attackers killed at least 22 people, almost all of them civilians, in an attack near a Nato base in Kandahar. Afghan officials say that 18 civilians were killed by a Nato air strike in Logar province.

"It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan," Mr Panetta said.

"It is very important for Pakistan to take steps. It is an increasing concern, the issue of safe haven," he said.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad have become increasingly strained following the unilateral US raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Tensions are also high over continuing US drone strikes in Pakistan and Islamabad's refusal to re-open a Nato supply route to Afghanistan which it closed down in November after 24 of its soldiers were killed on the border in a Nato air strike.

Analysts say that Pakistan's co-operation is crucial as Nato tries to stabilise Afghanistan before most foreign combat troops leave the country at the end of 2014.

Porous border

But last September outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm Mike Mullen said that the Haqqani network "acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency".

Image caption Mr Panetta said he was concerned about recent insurgent attacks in Afghanistan

The following month, Pakistan's army chief Ashfaq Kayani warned the US that it should focus on stabilising Afghanistan instead of pushing Pakistan to attack militant groups in the crucial border region.

Officials say efforts to combat militancy also have been hindered by the fact that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan has control over parts of the porous border area.

But analysts believe that Pakistan is reluctant to open a new front in its fight against militancy by attacking the Haqqani network, believed to be in the tribal region of North Waziristan.

As he arrived in Kabul, Mr Panetta told reporters that he wanted to hear an assessment from commanders about a recent rise in insurgent attacks and plans for troop withdrawals.

He said that while insurgent attacks appeared better organised, the overall level of violence had reduced compared with previous years.

Speaking to troops gathered at the airport in Kabul, Mr Panetta said that "we have every responsibility to defend ourselves and... we've got to put pressure on Pakistan to take them on as well".

His visit comes at the end of his week-long trip to Asia to explain a new US military strategy, announced in January, that calls for a shift in strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

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