The top US military officer accused Pakistan of "exporting violence" to Afghanistan and said this puts in jeopardy not only the frayed US-Pakistani partnership against terrorism but also the prospects for a successful outcome to the decade-old war in Afghanistan.
In his final congressional testimony before retiring next week, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said success in Afghanistan is threatened not only by the Pakistani government's support for the Haqqani network and other al-Qa'ida-aligned extremist groups but also by Afghan government corruption.
"If we continue to draw down forces apace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked," Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "I believe we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith. At best this would lead to localized conflicts inside the country; at worst it could lead to government collapse and civil war."
Mullen said Pakistan's government has chosen to "use violent extremism as an instrument of policy," adding that "by exporting violence, they have eroded their internal security and their position in the region. They have undermined their international credibility and threatened their economic well-being."
Testifying alongside Mullen, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also decried Pakistani support for the Haqqani network, and he said Pakistani authorities have been told in unequivocal terms that the US will not tolerate a continuation of the group's cross-border attacks. Panetta said the message was delivered recently by new CIA Director David Petraeus in a meeting with the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI.
"They must take steps to prevent the safe haven that the Haqqanis are using," Panetta said. "We simply cannot allow these kinds of terrorists to be able to go into Afghanistan, attack our forces and then return to Pakistan for safe haven."
Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and chairman of the committee, pressed Panetta on what options are available to the US to go after the Haqqani network. Panetta declined to go into details in public but made clear that the Pakistanis know what might happen.
"I don't think they would be surprised by the actions we might or might not take," he said.
The remarks by Mullen and Panetta highlight a notable shift in the administration's approach to Pakistan. Whereas US officials previously kept their strongest criticisms of Pakistan private, in recent days they have been explicit in linking the government to extremists who are attacking US forces in Afghanistan.
Mullen, for example, said the Haqqani network "acts as a veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence service.
The increasingly tough US rhetoric reflects a US belief that Pakistani intelligence in recent months has more aggressively facilitated cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis, one senior military official said Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Panetta also said that US and Afghan forces are searching for ways to better defend against spectacular attacks by insurgents, like the assault on the US Embassy and Nato headquarters in Kabul last week.
In his first congressional testimony since taking office, Panetta said it is important to limit insurgents' ability to create the perception that security in the Afghan capital is deteriorating.
Overall, he said, the US and Nato effort to stabilize Afghanistan is "headed in the right direction."
In recent days administration officials have taken a harsher tone toward Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of maintaining links with the Haqqani network, a band of Islamist fighters that the US says are behind attacks in Afghanistan, including last week's attack on the US Embassy in Kabul.
Mullen, who has met frequently with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, over the past few years, said in prepared remarks for the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Haqqanis have "long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government" and are "in many ways a strategic arm" of Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. He said the Haqqanis were behind several recent major attacks in Afghanistan, including the embassy attack and a Sept. 10 truck bomb that killed five Afghans and injured 77 US soldiers.
Mullen said earlier this week there is a "proxy connection" between Pakistani intelligence services and the Haqqanis, meaning the militants are secretly doing the Pakistanis' bidding.
"The Haqqani piece of this has got to be reversed — period," he told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mullen said he delivered that message to Kayani last week during a meeting in Spain.