Senators and Pentagon issue fresh criticisms and threats to Pakistan

Key senators and Pentagon brass on Thursday lobbed fresh criticism and harsh words at Pakistani officials over what Washington sees as the country’s reluctance to target Haqqani Network fighters operating inside its borders.

Echoing frustrations that nearly boiled over after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, Senate Armed Services Committee members questioned whether it is time to cut off or severely restrict the assistance funds Washington sends Islamabad each year.

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The new criticisms and threats came amid an increasingly sharp tone in recent days from Pentagon and Obama administration officials about Pakistani officials’ apparent reluctance to go after the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-allied group, on their soil.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and other U.S. officials this week fingered the Haqqani Network for the brazen attack on the American Embassy in Kabul, and another on a coalition military convoy.

“In our discussions with Pakistani officials, we heard the same excuses we have heard before about why Pakistani forces are unable … to go after the Haqqanis in Northern Waziristan,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) of talks he held during a recent swing through the region.

“It is simply unacceptable that these deadly attacks against our forces continue while Pakistan’s leaders decline to go after the Haqqanis and even fail to publicly condemn their violent cross-border attacks,” Levin said. “Pakistan must bear some responsibility for attacks on us.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking member, told Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta they need to get to work on explaining to members of Congress why U.S. assistance funds for Pakistan should not be shut down or severely restricted.

Lawmakers want to discuss with administration and military officials the most effective ways to convince Pakistani officials to change their behavior.

The tough talk came hours after Senate appropriators late Wednesday proposed slapping conditions on those very dollars.

The Senate panel approved its 2012 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill late Wednesday night, including a $100 million cut to the administration’s $1 billion request for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund.

The committee’s bill “includes strengthened restrictions on assistance for Pakistan by conditioning all funds to the Government of Pakistan on cooperation against the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations … and funding based on achieving benchmarks,” according to an Appropriations Committee statement.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of both panels, applauded the proposed stipulations, saying it is “a really important first step” to altering the Pakistani officials’ behavior.

Panetta endorsed the strengthened stipulations, saying he is behind “anything that makes clear to them” that Washington will not tolerate their support for the Haqqanis.

Panetta, the CIA director until June 30, told the committee he has “indicated” to Pakistani officials that continued U.S. funding “is conditioned” on their cooperation in targeting extremist groups within their borders.

“You have got to take steps,” Panetta said he has told senior leaders in Islamabad.

Panetta highlighted operations the Pakistani military has conducted against select terrorist groups, noting those forces sustained casualties during the fighting.

“But they have to keep up that pressure,” the Defense secretary said bluntly.

Both chambers, since the bin Laden raid in May, have proposed new stipulations on Pakistan — but it remains unclear whether those conditions have been strong enough to cause the country to be more aggressive against all extremists operating from its soil.

Mullen credited Pakistani officials for assisting the United States since 9/11 in taking out al Qaeda, Taliban forces and fighters from other groups. But, he said bluntly, “they are very choosy about which terrorists they’ll [target].”

Updated at 6:55 p.m.