By Mike Mount
Pakistan is taking steps to try to limit terrorist safe havens inside the lawless western part of that country where various insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan find sanctuary, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him overseas, Panetta said recent meetings between the United States and Pakistan yielded encouraging signs that Pakistan is working on the long-standing problem.
"My sense is that they're in a better place, that they understand their responsibility," Panetta said. "General Kiyani [Pakistan's military chief], in particular, has indicated a willingness to try to put more pressure on the safe havens," Panetta said.
The United States and Pakistan have had a frosty relationship over the past few years during which time Pakistan closed border crossings or supply routes following a series of incidents.
These included U.S. troops firing into Pakistan while chasing insurgents, the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by American special forces in May 2011 in Pakistan, and NATO shelling that killed a number of Pakistani soldiers in November of that same year.
"Actions have to speak louder than words," Panetta said. "I do believe that they are in a better place in the sense that they understand the threat they should deal with."
Pakistani safe havens have harbored terrorist groups like the Haqqani network that operate with almost no impunity in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Haqqani network is blamed for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as conducting numerous terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. Haqqani forces are able to then move back into Pakistan out of reach of U.S. and Afghan security forces.
Haqqani leadership is thought to be headquartered in Western Pakistan as well as other insurgent groups and financiers for insurgent activity inside Afghanistan.
Elements of the Taliban leadership are also believed to be holed up in the area.
The United States is able to target some of these groups or individuals deep inside Pakistan through CIA drone strikes in coordination with the Pakistan government. But the U.S. military and Afghan forces, by law, are not allowed to conduct operations into Pakistan.
On Monday, the Pentagon released its latest progress report on Afghanistan which noted continued movement of insurgents over the border into Pakistani safe havens, an issue that has complicated efforts to put Afghanistan on a more secure footing.
Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan remains volatile because of the ease of movement by insurgent organizations such as the Haqqani network and other groups, which finance anti-Afghan and coalition operations, according to the report.
"Safe havens in Pakistan persist despite improving ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as better U.S.-Pakistan relations, according to an American defense official who briefed reporters about the report.
The cross-border issue is also a sticking point with the Afghan government for reconciliation with the Taliban and other tribal groups in Afghanistan.
Panetta said the reconciliation process was discussed at meetings with various factions.
"The Pakistani's have indicated that they are willing to try to assist in this effort. Reconciliation is a complicated process." Panetta said. "I think at this point, everyone's sense is that we have to at least make the effort to try to see if we can develop some kind of political solution to this effort."