Sen. Levin: US should threaten to cut ties with Pakistan over terrorism

Pakistan should be warned that the U.S. will cut ties with Islamabad if it continues to support an extremist group linked to attacks on U.S. troops, a key Democratic lawmaker said Friday.

Sen. Carl LevinCarl LevinCongress: The sleeping watchdog Congress must not give companies tax reasons to move jobs overseas A lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies MORE (D-Mich.) said Friday there is evidence of “direct support” between Pakistan’s intelligence agency and the Haqqani Network, echoing a comment made last month by then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen.

The Haqqani Network is an Islamic extremist group that operates mainly out of Pakistan’s northwest region of North Waziristan and has, according to U.S. officials, launched many attacks on American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.       

“Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar recently said that if the United States persists in allegations about the [Pakistani intelligence service]-Haqqani connection, the United States 'will lose an ally,' ” Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“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,” Levin said in a speech highly critical of Pakistani leaders.

“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,” Levin said. 

Levin's remarks follow tough comments from Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE, who during a visit to Pakistan this week also used blunt language to tell Islamabad it must do a better job of policing the Haqqani Network and other groups that are adding to the instability in neighboring Afghanistan. 

"We should be able to agree that for too long extremists have been able to operate here in Pakistan and from Pakistani soil," Clinton said Friday in an address in Pakistan, according to a report from The Associated Press. "No one who targets innocent civilians, whether they be Pakistanis, Afghans, Americans or anyone else should be tolerated or protected."

Levin said Washington should place the Haqqani Network on the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organization list.

“It is long past time for the United States to call the Haqqani Network for what it is and add this group to” that list, Levin said.

Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have soured this year. A U.S. raid into Pakistan to kill 9/11 terrorist Osama bin Laden, without permission from or notice to the Pakistan government, angered and embarrassed that country's leadership. 

U.S. officials and lawmakers were incredulous that bin Laden could have been living in Pakistan without that country's intelligence service knowing about it. The U.S. is also fed up with militants sheltered in Pakistan who have launched attacks in Afghanistan. 

Clinton's visit and her pointed remarks, Levin said in his speech, should be an "indicator" to Pakistani leaders that they cannot tolerate further support to a group that attacks U.S. forces and seeks to destabilize Afghanistan.

“For the Pakistanis to say that the Haqqanis do not operate [from their soil] is kind of the epitome of denial,” Levin said bluntly during a question-and-answer session.

An audience member who identified herself as a retired career State Department officer asked Levin how Washington could force Islamabad to alter its behavior.

“You cannot force them to do anything,” Levin responded. 

U.S. officials should instead persuade officials in Pakistan that cutting off their intelligence service’s support of the Haqqinis is in their self-interest, Levin said, while at the same time making clear Washington is ready to sever its ties with Islamabad.

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to former presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush, asked Levin how U.S. officials could convince Pakistan that America will not abandon the region like it did after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Levin acknowledged U.S. officials have at times been “terribly wrong” in their dealings with their sometimes-reluctant ally.

“We’re not leaving,” Levin said about Afghanistan.

On that point, based on his conversations with senior Pakistan officials, Levin has concluded they are “ambivalent” about America’s military footprint in Afghanistan.

In his pointed prepared remarks, the Armed Services chairman said U.S. officials and commanders should respond to attacks on American troops in Afghanistan from across the border in 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. “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.”

“We have the right to target not only forces and artillery attacking our forces in Afghanistan from across the border in Pakistan,” Levin said, “but to target the people controlling those forces as well.”

And he made clear the U.S. military has the combat power — in the form of missile-armed unmanned aircraft and “counter-artillery capabilities” — to do just that.

“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,” he said. “But we must let them know clearly that this is a show-stopper to a normal relationship with the United States.”

—This story was updated at 9:26 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.