The US is running out of patience with Pakistan over safe havens for insurgents who attack US troops across the border in Afghanistan, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned yesterday.
Panetta was speaking during a brief visit to Kabul overshadowed by Afghan fury over a NATO air strike that allegedly killed 18 civilians — an issue that the Pentagon chief did not mention at a news conference.
Panetta left for the airport just 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, in Kabul to assess the state of the war and plans to withdraw US combat troops by the end of 2014, lashed out at the Haqqani network and Pakistan over a recent increase in violence in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani group, a faction linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda that is believed to be based in Pakistan’s lawless tribal district of North Waziristan, is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan’s 10-year war.
“It’s an increasing concern that Haqqani safe havens still exist on the other side of the border. Pakistan has to take action [against] allowing terrorists in their country to attack our forces on the other side of the border,” Panetta said.
“We are reaching the limits of our patience here,” he added at the news conference with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
The Afghan and US governments have said they do not believe the war in Afghanistan can be won without safe havens in Pakistan being dismantled. Critics in Pakistan have accused them of deflecting blame for the increasingly deadly war.
The US 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.
Panetta said that in talks with Pakistan, the US had made “very clear, time and time again” the need to crack down on Haqqani militants.
However, Karzai, who was attending a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Beijing, issued a stinging rebuke of the West for the deaths of civilians in a bloody day on Wednesday.
“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 air strike on Wednesday in Logar Province, south of Kabul.
Karzai “is deeply grieved” over the deaths of civilians in the NATO strike and in a Kandahar suicide bombing on the same day, and “will shorten his trip to China and will very soon return to the country,” his office said.
NATO’s US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said “multiple insurgents” were killed in the air strike, which was ordered after troops came under fire during an operation against a Taliban commander.
However, the ISAF said it would launch an investigation after local police said 18 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the strike.
Civilian casualties caused by US and NATO air strikes have been a frequent source of tension between Karzai and the US.
For the past five years the number of civilians killed in the war has risen steadily, reaching a record of 3,021 last year, with the vast majority caused by insurgents, the UN says.
In the Kandahar suicide attack on Wednesday, 23 civilians were killed when two Taliban bombers blew themselves up at a makeshift bazaar and truck stop near a major NATO base.