- Pakistani officials acknowledge contacts with the terrorist group
- Those contacts do not mean the intelligence service supports the group, official says
- Pakistan is responding to comments by U.S. officials alleging support of Haqqani
- The group is believed to be behind recent attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul
Pakistani officials hit back Friday at accusations from senior U.S. officials that Pakistan's intelligence service supports the Haqqani terrorist network, but acknowledged that the country does maintain contacts with the group.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said Thursday that the Haqqani network, which has carried out a number of high-profile terror attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul and elsewhere, acted "as a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence."
Major General Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, acknowledged the service had contacts with the Haqqanis.
"Any intelligence agency would like to maintain contact with whatever opposition group, whatever terrorist organization ... for some positive outcome," he told CNN in a telephone interview.
However, those contacts do not mean that the ISI supports or endorses the organization, he added.
"If someone is blaming us [as] the only country maintaining contacts with the Haqqanis, there are others, too," Abbas said. There is a huge difference between maintaining contacts with such a group to facilitate peace and supporting it against an ally, he said.
Earlier Friday, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani said that "Admiral Mullen knows full well which countries are in contact with the Haqqanis. Singling out Pakistan is neither fair nor productive."
Abbas said Pakistan had intelligence that other governments were in contact with the Haqqanis, though he declined to identify them.
He also described as "shocking" Mullen's assertion that Pakistan was complicit in recent attacks against the U.S. Embassy and other targets in Kabul. He said Mullen's public comments Thursday were especially surprising after his constructive meeting with Kayani in Spain last week. Pakistan has nothing to gain from supporting such attacks, Abbas said, adding that such claims and "media diplomacy" do not help the relationship between the two countries.
The United States has not shared any evidence with Pakistan detailing support from the ISI for the Haqqanis, nor of the Haqqanis' presence or activities in Pakistan, Abbas said. Further, he said the Haqqanis no longer need Pakistani territory as there are large areas of eastern Afghanistan -- in Kunar and Nuristan provinces -- where they have sanctuaries. "They carry out attacks from that side," he said, and had no infrastructure in Pakistan.
The relationship between Pakistani intelligence and the Haqqanis goes back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States supported the mujahedeen resistance. Intelligence officials believe Pakistan still regards the Haqqanis as an important tool in countering Indian influence in Afghanistan and helping shape any future peace process in line with Islamabad's priorities. With an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, the Haqqanis' close relationship with both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban makes them an important player in the region.
Western counterterrorism officials believe that contrary to Pakistan's assertions, the Haqqanis rely on Pakistani territory -- specifically North Waziristan and the Khurram agency -- to organize, resupply and raise funds.
The Haqqanis are widely regarded as one of the most effective militant groups in Afghanistan. Western intelligence officials believe the Haqqanis were involved in the assassination earlier this week of the Chairman of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in June. Rabbani himself alleged that the group that attacked the hotel had been in phone contact with people in the town of Miranshah in the Pakistani territory of North Waziristan, long regarded as a stronghold of the Haqqani network.
Abbas rejected the suggestion, saying Pakistan had closed the cell-phone towers in the area to prevent terrorists from communicating and coordinating their activities within Waziristan. "We closed all the mobile towers on this side of the border, but unfortunately across the border in Afghanistan mobile towers are working."
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declined Thursday to discuss options available to the United States to go after the Haqqani network, but added he did not think the Pakistanis "would be surprised by the actions we might or might not take."
Abbas said any unilateral military action would fuel anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan.
It "would have grave consequences ... and would put the government and the military's backs to the wall," he said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar had a similar message for Washington. Speaking on Pakistani television, she said, "You (the United States) will lose an ally. You cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, you cannot afford to alienate the Pakistani people. If you are choosing to do so, and if they are choosing to do so, it will be at their own cost."
A growing number of suspected U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan have been aimed at members of the Haqqani network, as have Special Forces operations in Afghanistan.
Reuters quoted Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the group that his father founded, as saying he would welcome a U.S. ground attack.
"The United States will suffer more losses (in North Waziristan) than they suffered in Afghanistan," he said in a phone interview Thursday with the news agency.