Pakistan warns US ‘no boots on our ground’

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan would not tolerate any incursion on its territory by US forces targeting militant groups, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Thursday, calling for Washington to provide the intelligence Islamabad needs to take them out itself.

Malik also rejected US allegations that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency aids or has ties with the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network, a powerful guerrilla group that straddles the mountainous border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The Pakistan nation will not allow the boots on our ground, never. Our government is already cooperating with the US … but they also must respect our sovereignty,” he told Reuters in an interview, insisting that Islamabad wanted US intelligence, not troops, to root out insurgents inside Pakistan.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week accused the ISI of using the Haqqani Network to wage a “proxy war” on NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.

Some US intelligence reporting has alleged that the ISI specifically directed, or urged, the Haqqani Network to carry out last week’s attack on the US embassy and a NATO headquarters in Kabul, according to two US officials and a source familiar with recent US-Pakistan official contacts.

“If you say that it is ISI involved in that attack, I categorically deny it. We have no such policy to attack or aid attack through Pakistani forces or through any Pakistani assistance,” Malik said.

The 20-hour battle in the Afghan capital stoked tensions between Washington and Islamabad, which were already running high following the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a surprise US Navy SEALs raid inside Pakistan last May.

Since then, American officials, including the ambassador in Islamabad and Mullen have issued unusually blunt criticism of Pakistan’s failure to curb the Haqqani group.

This week Malik had a meeting with the director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, who quizzed him on the Haqqani Network.

‘Blame game’

During the interview to Reuters, Malik conceded that elements of the Haqqani network, which analysts say can draw on a pool of roughly 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, are partly based in North Waziristan on the Afghan border.

However, he said the Americans had so far not provided Pakistan with intelligence that would help it go after them.

“Our capacity to trace them in that area is limited. Give us the information and we will operate,” he said. “Let’s have information, let’s have a proper investigation and if there is a requirement, let’s have an operation.”

“We are fighting a common enemy but unfortunately not with a common strategy. Instead of a blame game we have to sit together. We are not part of the terrorism, we are part of the solution.”

One option for the United States, another cross-border raid, like the mission that killed Bin Laden, may be tempting in some quarters. But the risks are high and the backlash from Pakistan would be fierce, almost certainly harming what counter-terrorism cooperation exists.

“This is going to be very unfortunate if it happens because it’s going to grow a lot of anti-US feelings,” Malik said.

Rejecting allegations that Islamabad has ties with the Haqqani Network, Malik said: “If they have some kind of proof they must come forward.”

“For us, whether it’s the Haqqanis or Tehrik-i-Taliban, or LeJ, they are all terrorist outfits and we will leave no stone unturned to go against them.”

Reflecting the growing anger in Washington, a US Senate committee on Wednesday voted to make aid to Islamabad conditional on fighting the militants. The United States has allocated about $20 billion for Pakistan over the last decade.

Malik said there was not enough understanding that Pakistan had made huge sacrifices of blood and treasure fighting militancy on its soil since 2001, which the government this week put at 35,000 lives and $68 billion.

“Pakistan should be given some trust, and this trust deficit should go away, because we are fighting a war,” he said. “There is not a day that is not 9/11 for my country.”