Levin: U.S. Can Target Extremists if Pakistan Will Not

Friday, October 21, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In remarks this morning to the Council on Foreign Relations, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the United States should make clear to Pakistan that it cannot expect normal relations with the United States if extremists who attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan continue to find support and safe haven within Pakistan.

“If Pakistan will not take on the threat posed by the Haqqanis and other extremist groups based in Pakistan who attack our forces in Afghanistan, then we should be prepared to take steps to defend our troops,” Levin said in remarks prepared for delivery. [Watch C-SPAN's recording of the speech at the bottom of this page.] Following is the full text of his prepared remarks:

CFR SpeechThank you for inviting me back to the Council on Foreign Relations.  The Council’s work makes a significant contribution to the national discourse on the most pressing foreign policy issues of our day, and I am always glad to join with you in discussing those issues.    

Last October, I came here to discuss President Obama’s decision to begin reducing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan – a decision that was under attack. I felt the reduction, which began in July, was vitally important, because it would provide a strong incentive for the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security, which in turn is essential to the success of our mission: helping build a stable Afghanistan that is able and willing to fight off attempts by the Taliban to retake control.

Two months ago, I made my sixth trip to Afghanistan.  Afghan, U.S., and other coalition forces are making significant military progress.  Security is improving in the south, and our military commanders are increasingly focused on the east, where the insurgent threat remains resilient, particularly the threat from the Haqqani network operating out of safe havens in Pakistan.  The capabilities of the Afghanistan National Security Forces are growing, both in quantity and quality. Afghanistan’s army and police are almost 50,000 men stronger than when I spoke to you last year. Afghan forces are conducting a greater proportion of the missions and are increasingly in the lead.  Just this week, The New York Times reported that Afghan troops lead a lengthy, intense operation to clear insurgents from a key supply route in Kunar province.

We are succeeding in training the Afghan army and other security forces to a higher level of effectiveness. And the Afghan Local Police program has shown initial success. In that program, our special operations forces live with and train local Afghans selected by the village elders and under the oversight of the Ministry of Interior. Their goal is to defend their own villages against the insurgents.

Finally, transition of security responsibility is moving forward, as Afghan forces have assumed the security lead in seven areas around Afghanistan.  Afghan leaders continue to show that they understand the urgency of preparing for Afghan security forces taking the lead on security throughout Afghanistan by the 2014 date set by Presidents Obama and Karzai, a date endorsed by the international coalition.  I have long believed that the Taliban’s worst nightmare is an Afghanistan secured by strong and effective Afghan forces that have the support of the Afghan people. That nightmare is becoming the Taliban’s reality.

This transition to Afghan control does not mean that the United States will abandon Afghanistan.  The strategic partnership agreement being negotiated between the United States and Afghanistan will play an important role in demonstrating to the Afghan people and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the United States intends to remain engaged in Afghanistan and the region.  

Of course, significant challenges remain, and, if not effectively addressed, could undermine security gains achieved at great cost.  First, the government of Afghanistan needs to increase its legitimacy with the Afghan people.  It needs to improve governance, deliver services, end corruption, and improve inclusiveness, transparency and adherence to the rule of law.  But we should not ignore the fact that there has been some progress even in some of those areas. For instance, more than 2 million Afghan girls are in school today, compared to almost none in 2001. Infant mortality has fallen rapidly and access to health care has expanded. But there surely is a long way to go.

We should acknowledge that while we can cajole, encourage and pressure the Afghan government to provide good governance, we cannot guarantee it. Only the Afghans can do that. Hopefully the lessons of the Arab Spring have reached Afghanistan: Leaders who fail to deliver accountable and transparent government lose their legitimacy, and they are more and more finding that their political survival is at risk.

Even if the Karzai Government has the will to improve governance, it cannot succeed without security.  The greatest threat to security in Afghanistan, and the focus of my remarks this morning, is the threat posed by the safe havens that harbor insurgents across the border in Pakistan.  The Haqqani network in North Waziristan, in particular, has used its sanctuary in Pakistan to launch deadly attacks on Afghan, U.S. and other coalition forces in Afghanistan.  Attacks by operatives of the Haqqani network include the attack on the Hotel Inter-Continental in Kabul in June that killed 21 people; the massive truck bomb in Wardak Province that injured several dozen U.S. soldiers; and the attack just last month on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.   

The threat emanating from these safe havens is not new.  We have known about it for years and repeatedly pressed the Pakistanis to act. I have seen personally how Pakistan’s government has stalled and dissembled on this issue. I have repeatedly urged President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, and General Kayani, the Pakistani Army Chief of Army Staff, in meetings both here in Washington and in Islamabad, to act to eliminate these terrorist sanctuaries.  

Typical of these experiences was the Pakistani response during my August visit, when I again raised the issue of safe havens in Pakistan.  When we asked why the Pakistani military had not gone into North Waziristan to eliminate these safe havens, we heard the same excuses we have heard before about how the Pakistani Army was already over-committed elsewhere.  I then pressed Prime Minister Gilani to explain why, if Pakistan for whatever reason can’t or won’t clear out these safe havens, senior Pakistan officials have not at least publicly condemned the deadly cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban.  Prime Minister Gilani initially said that his government had publicly condemned these cross-border attacks, but he backed down when I asked him to provide examples of these public statements. 

What has been apparent for years is that Pakistan military intelligence, the ISI, maintains ties with the Haqqani network and provides support to this group, even as these extremists engage in cross-border attacks against our forces.  Recently, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter said in connection with the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that there was evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistani government.  And, of course, Admiral Mullen’s testimony last month before my Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani network acts as “a veritable arm” of the Pakistan ISI was a sharp public declaration by our top military officer, known as a friend of Pakistan.  Admiral Mullen was deeply troubled by the deaths of our troops at the hands of the Haqqanis.  We owe it to our military men and women sent into harm’s way that we challenge Pakistan over its support for the extremist groups that are attacking our troops, Afghan troops and civilians from Pakistani territory.  It is unacceptable for the United States to spend its blood and treasure so that Afghanistan does not once again become a breeding ground for militant extremists while Pakistan protects terrorists who cross the border to attack us.  Pakistan cannot evade its responsibility for its role in allowing and supporting these attacks.

At the least, Pakistan needs to condemn the attacks of the Haqqanis in Afghanistan, and Pakistani officials need to end their denials of plain truth.  Lieutenant General Pasha, the head of the ISI, called Admiral Mullen’s testimony “baseless.” He denied that the Haqqani network was even in Pakistan and claimed that Pakistan had not provided the Haqqanis “a penny or provided even a single bullet.”  President Zardari wrote movingly in a recent op-ed about the losses that Pakistan has suffered from extremist groups bent on terrorizing the Pakistani people, but failed to mention, much less condemn, the attacks that Haqqani and Taliban extremists based in Pakistan are conducting against our forces in Afghanistan. 

So what actions are open to us to correct this situation? If Pakistan will not take on the threat posed by the Haqqanis and other extremist groups based in Pakistan who attack our forces in Afghanistan, then we should be prepared to take steps to defend our troops.  It is consistent with established principles of international law for the United States to defend itself against cross-border attacks by insurgents based in Pakistan, and to respond to those attacks. The recent report that a Haqqani “coordinator” named Jalil was killed in a drone strike in the North Waziristan town of Miran Shah, the headquarters of the Haqqanis and an area that was heretofore off limits, if true, is an example of the kind of action that is overdue. We have the right to target not only forces and artillery attacking our forces in Afghanistan from across the border in Pakistan, but to target the people controlling those forces as well. As Secretary Panetta has said, “The message [the Pakistanis] need to know is: we’re going to do everything we can to defend our forces.” 

We should inform Pakistan that it should not expect to normalize its relationship with the United States so long as it provides safe haven for violent extremist groups or uses terrorists as proxies to weaken other countries or bully them into acceding to Pakistan’s demands.  We may not be able to persuade Pakistan that its activities are counterproductive for its own security and stability and for the security and stability of the region.  But we must let them know clearly that this is a show-stopper to a normal relationship with the United States.

There is also evidence that the Pakistanis have interfered with attempts to achieve political reconciliation in Afghanistan, obstructing peace talks unless they can exercise control over the Taliban groups involved and the substance of the talks. We should be clear with the Pakistanis that obstruction of reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan is also an impediment to improved relations with us.

It is long past time for the United States to call the Haqqani network for what it is and add this extremist group to the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list.  The Haqqanis should be listed alongside the Pakistan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Al Qaida as foreign terrorist organizations.  Keeping the Haqqanis off that list has not encouraged the group to join a reconciliation process, nor has it prevented the Pakistani ISI from continuing its support for the Haqqanis.  Designating the Haqqanis as a foreign terrorist organization would send another message to Pakistan that we will respond to its support to this extremist organization. 

Nobody wants the U.S.-Pakistan relationship to return to the early 1990s, when the United States disengaged from Pakistan.  Nowhere are the effects of that disengagement felt more strongly than in our bilateral military-to-military relations.  A whole generation of mid-level Pakistani officers had no contact with their U.S. counterparts through such programs as the International Military Education and Training program.  The absence of these connections has contributed to anti-Americanism among those now-senior Pakistani officers.  

Admiral Mullen was right to say that a flawed relationship with Pakistan is better than none at all.  We do need to stay engaged with Pakistan, to try to act together when our interests align. We should attempt to understand Pakistan’s motivations and concerns even when we disagree with them.  And we should seek to build a bilateral relationship based on our shared interest in promoting democratic values, security and stability in Pakistan and throughout the region.

But in continuing to find ways to improve a “flawed relationship” we must also speak clearly.  Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbini Khar recently said that if the United States persists in allegations about the ISI-Haqqani connection, the United States “will lose an ally.”  Our response should be that if the only option Pakistan presents us is a choice between losing an ally and continuing to lose our troops, then we will choose the former.