By Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb - 06/06/12 11:55 PM EDT
Pakistan's harshest critics in Congress are applauding Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for finally acknowledging that America is at war within the boundaries of the nominal U.S. ally.
“I think it's helpful for us to understand and develop policies based on reality,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a critic of both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, “rather than walking on eggs trying not to get some corrupt, repressive regime in Pakistan mad at us.”
Panetta was referring to a U.S. campaign of drone strikes against Islamist militants who are based in Pakistan and launch attacks on NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan. The drone strikes — as well as the Osama bin Laden raid — have been one source of the rising tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan, as Islamabad has expressed anger that its sovereignty is being violated.
The U.S. has expressed its own frustrations that Pakistan is not doing more to stop the Haqqani network from launching attacks in Afghanistan.
“I think it’s part of the theater of war,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of the FATA. “It’s a place where the enemy seeks sanctuary.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, for his part didn't go as far but called the situation “unacceptable.”
“The realism of the situation is that there are the elements of the Pakistani military, specifically the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], that are supporting the Haqqani network that is killing Americans,” he said. “Whether you call that being at war or not, that’s up to you. I don’t view it as being at war, but I certainly view it as a situation which is not acceptable.”
The frustration over Pakistan has been keenly felt in Congress, where lawmakers have voted to slash the White House proposed aid budget for Pakistan by more than two thirds, and have placed harsh restrictions on the rest. Senate appropriators last week slashed funding by a symbolic extra $33 million in retaliation for a lengthy prison sentence against a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track down bin Laden.
U.S.-Pakistan relations boiled over last November when 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO troops on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which Pakistan responded by shutting down NATO supply lines to Afghanistan. Negotiations are ongoing to re-open them but have so far been unsuccessful.
Rohrabacher, who has been among the most vocal Pakistan critics in Congress, said it would be more accurate to say the U.S. is at war with, not in, Pakistan, based on what he said was evidence of continued support for radical Islamists who target American troops.
He added that instead of further burdening a U.S. public already weary from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the acknowledgment of a third war would in fact make it easier for the U.S. to extricate itself from the area.
“We are now engaged in mission impossible in Afghanistan,” he said. “As long as we don't recognize the Pakistanis as actually being engaged in that war against us, we cannot successfully terminate that conflict.”
Instead, he said, “we should continue hitting the leadership of the terrorist networks until the minute that we get out of Afghanistan and Pakistan and then wave to them goodbye.”
Others played down Panetta's comments.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that the remarks were merely stating that the U.S. is at war with the Haqqani network.
“They’re at war with us and that makes us at war with them,” Levin said. “That doesn’t make us at war with Pakistan — it makes us at war with a group that’s at war with us.”
Panetta defended U.S. drone strikes in his remarks in India, which he gave two days after a drone attack killed in Pakistan territory killed the al Qaeda's No. 2.
"This is about our sovereignty as well," Panetta said, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We have made very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves."
Graham suggested that Panetta may have in fact been signaling that the U.S. will continue its campaign of drone strikes against targets in Pakistan after U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.
“In the enduring strategic partnership agreement, when you talk about not being able to use Afghanistan to launch attacks against third countries without permission from the Afghan government, everyone understands that the attacks in the tribal region are not an attack against Pakistan, but against terrorist organizations that are killing American soldiers and Afghans,” Graham said.
“I think he’s planting a flag that we will continue operations in the tribal regions because it’s part of the war in Afghanistan."