KABUL - US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned Pakistan on Thursday that Washington was losing patience over Islamabad’s failure to eliminate safe havens for insurgents who attacked US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Panetta lashed out at Pakistan and the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network during a brief visit to Kabul overshadowed by fury over a NATO air strike that allegedly killed 18 civilians, an issue that the Pentagon chief did not address in public.
Panetta left Kabul less than five hours after his arrival, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged to cut short a trip to Beijing and head home over the deaths of around 40 civilians Wednesday in the air strike and a suicide bombing.
Panetta’s trip to Kabul to assess the state of the war and plans to withdraw US combat troops by the end of 2014 coincided with an increase in violence. “Even though we are seeing an uptick in violence in recent days, the overall level of violence is down from past years,” he said. “It’s an increasing concern that this safe haven exists and that there are those like the Haqqanis who are making use of that to attack our forces,” Panetta told a news conference with his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak.
“We are reaching the limits of our patience here,” he said. “For that reason, it’s extremely important that Pakistan take action to prevent this kind of safe haven,” he said. “We have made that very clear time and time again and we will continue to do that. But as I said, we are reaching the limits of our patience,” he added.
The Afghan and US governments have suggested the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without safe havens in Pakistan being dismantled.
Analysts say Islamabad allows the Haqqanis to operate to hedge against any influence by their arch-foe India in Afghanistan, while critics in Pakistan accuse the Americans of deflecting blame for the increasingly deadly war.
The Pentagon chief blamed an attack last week on Forward Operating Base Salerno, in eastern Afghanistan, on the Haqqani network. The United States leads 130,000 NATO troops fighting the Taliban insurgency and is planning to withdraw the bulk of combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and hand responsibility for security to the Afghans.
But civilian casualties caused by US and NATO air strikes have been a frequent source of tension between Karzai and the United States.
The Afghan president, who was attending a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Beijing, issued a stinging rebuke of NATO’s latest air strike.
“Attacks by NATO that cause life and property losses to civilians under no circumstances could be justified and are not acceptable,” Karzai said of the incident on Wednesday in Logar province, south of Kabul.