- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2011

ISLAMABAD | The Pakistani army Thursday rejected what it called “negative propaganda” by the United States, hours after the top U.S. military officer accused the country’s spy agency of continued links to a powerful Afghan Taliban faction.

The unusually strident dispute among American and Pakistani officials reflected the poor state of relations between the two counterterrorism allies.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, said Wednesday that he would raise the issue of Pakistan’s ties to the terrorist Haqqani network when he saw Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani later the same day in Islamabad.

The Haqqani network is a largely independent Afghan Taliban faction with bases in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region just across the border from Afghanistan. It is considered one of the most lethal forces battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s military-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has links to Haqqani leaders that date to the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pakistan insisted it had cut those ties.

Still, many analysts and U.S. officials suspect Islamabad may be trying to maintain its links to the Haqqanis so that it can use them as a means of retaining influence in Afghanistan - and keeping a bulwark against archrival India - after the Americans leave.

“The ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network. That doesn’t mean everybody in the ISI but it’s there. … I believe over time that has got to change,” Adm. Mullen said in the GEO TV interview.

In a statement issued after meeting with Adm. Mullen, Gen. Kayani said both sides were determined to keep their relationship intact, but he did not mention the Haqqanis,

The statement said Gen. Kayani told Adm. Mullen that he “strongly rejects negative propaganda [about] Pakistan not doing enough”.

He also said the army’s multiple offensives against insurgent groups in the northwest are evidence of Pakistan’s “national resolve to defeat terrorism.”

Gen. Kayani also criticized the ongoing U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan. Those strikes often hit North Waziristan, where the Haqqanis are based. It is also the one tribal region along the Afghan border where the army has not staged an offensive, despite U.S. pleas.

Pakistan has long denounced the drone-fired missile strikes as violations of its sovereignty, but it is widely believed to secretly cooperate with at least some of the attacks.

But in mid-March, Gen. Kayani issued a rare statement denouncing one such attack after it killed nearly 40 people. A U.S. official said the target was justified, but Gen. Kayani said dozens of civilian tribesmen died.