- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday defended the Obama administrations efforts to talk to the Taliban and an al Qaeda-linked terrorist network, but skeptical members of Congress said this approach cannot work without support from Pakistan.

Mrs. Clinton revealed on a visit to Pakistan last week that U.S. officials had met with representatives of the Haqqani terrorist network, which is based in Pakistan.

The meeting took place during the summer, before the terrorists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and injured 77 U.S. troops in a bombing at a NATO base south of the Afghan capital in September.

Rep. Howard Berman, California Democrat and co-chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was skeptical of the Obama administrations efforts to talk with the Haqqani network and the Taliban.

“Even if these groups were sincere in their desire to reconcile - and I’m skeptical that they are - Pakistan remains the spoiler,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairman of the committee, said the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is suffering from a “cascading series of crises.”

“Can the relationship be salvaged? Can our strategic objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan be brought into better alignment? It is hard to be optimistic,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton told members of the committee that the administration also has ratcheted up military pressure on the terrorists, even as it has tried to talk to them.

“We want to fight, talk and build all at the same time,” she said.

Part of the reason for the administration’s approach is “to test whether these organizations have any willingness to negotiate in good faith,” Mrs. Clinton said.

“There’s evidence going both ways. Sometimes we hear that they will, that there are elements within each that wish to pursue that; and then other times that it’s off the table,” she added.

The U.S. has stepped up a military operation against the Haqqanis in eastern Afghanistan. In the past week, 100 of the networks operatives were rounded up and eliminated, Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton said Pakistan has a critical role to play and a big stake in the outcome of these efforts. She urged Pakistan to encourage the terrorists to participate in the peace process in good faith and to shut down their safe havens.

The peace process was dealt a serious blow in September when a suicide bomber assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading a committee to reconcile with the terrorists.

The terrorists must renounce violence, abandon al Qaeda and abide by the Afghan Constitution for a successful outcome of the peace process, Mrs. Clinton said.

“If insurgents cannot meet those red lines, they will face continued and unrelenting assault,” she warned.

The Haqqani Network, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, occupies safe havens in Pakistans North Waziristan agency, which abuts Afghanistan.

U.S. officials say the Haqqani network is supported by elements in Pakistans military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that the Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm” of the ISI.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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