With only a few days left in his tenture, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen issued one of the strongest public warnings of his career to the leadership of Pakistan: We know you support terrorists and extremists who have attacked American forces, and if you don't knock it off you'll regret it.
In an extraordinary disclosure for an open session of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen told lawmakers the U.S. knows Pakistan was tied to the fighters who attacked the U.S. embassy in Kabul, a hotel in India in 2008 and who constantly harass American forces in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network specifically is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence service, he said. This effectively means that Pakistan is fighting a proxy war against the United States even it's helping go after al Qaeda terrorists and permitting vital American supply lines to run through its country. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency is the puppetmaster, Mullen confirmed.
It was not a groundbreaking synopsis of the security situation, but it was very unusual to hear America's top uniformed military leader lay it all out. Mullen appeared frustrated not only with the American blood on Pakistan's hands, but also that his years of personal work and negotiations with the Pakistani leadership could go for naught. Sen. John McCain, the committee's ranking Republican, summed up the danger: Unless Mullen, Secretary Panetta and other top leaders can somehow tell Congress what the U.S. will do to stop Haqqani and other cross-border attacks, Congress may pinch off financial assistance to punish Islamabad.
As they have before, Mullen and Panetta cautioned against cutting off Pakistan altogether, warning that its leaders, and Afghanistan's, still retain bitter memories of when the U.S. pulled out after the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1989. That means that the U.S. should not cut off Pakistan now nor should it plan for a major pullout even when the Afghans take responsibility for the war in 2014, the leaders said. Even as Mullen and Panetta condemned what they said Pakistan's responsibility for American deaths, they said the U.S. has no choice but to keep up a long-term relationship.
Mullen told senators that he could understand Pakistan's perspective on supporting the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and its other terrorist groups: Pakistani leaders view them as "strategic assets" in the defense of their "vital interests," he said, and the powerful ISI is the biggest believer in sustaining that policy. Pakistan as a whole needs to change its philosophy, and the ISI itself? "They'll probably be the last ones to shift," he said. "How quickly that can be done is an open question."
The bottom line, Mullen argued, is a point that we've heard CIA Director David Petraeus make before: This is in Pakistan's interest, too. If the Pakistanis think they can control the terrorists they support, they're wrong. Sooner or later, the argument goes, the snakes will cross from their neighbor's yard into their own, and they'll regret having set them loose in the first place.
If the U.S. sends this message to the Pakistanis "with one voice," Panetta said -- i.e. with DoD, CIA, State, everybody in the family all saying the same thing -- they may get the message. He seemed to imply that's what will happen going forward, and he restated something else: That if the Pakistanis don't do something about the fighters attacking and killing American troops, the United States will. Mullen agreed:
"That will not be something we'll just sit idly by and watch."