U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday confirmed that American officials have reached out to the Pakistan-based Haqqani militant network to test its interest in peace talks. Her comments came as she and other American officials demanded that Pakistan do more to crack down on the network and warned that the U.S. will keep up solo strikes on Haqqani leaders whether Pakistan likes it or not.
Clinton said the U.S. is still interested in engaging the Taliban in peace talks with Afghanistan, and seeks Pakistan's help to enlist the Haqqani faction, among other militants.The Obama administration sees a peace deal with the Taliban as the key to ending the war in Afghanistan.
"We don't know if this will work, but we believe strongly we must try it," she said.
The U.S. accuses Pakistan of providing safe havens for the Haqqanis, a Taliban affiliate that operates on both sides of the border and represents what the U.S. military calls its single greatest enemy in Afghanistan.
Clinton, speaking to a group of Pakistani journalists in Islamabad on Friday, became the first U.S. official to publicly acknowledge the Haqqani outreach, which was first reported by The Associated Press in August. Clinton said the meeting was organized by Pakistan's intelligence service and was preliminary "to see if (the Haqqanis) would show up."
Clinton said the U.S.is now working with Afghanistan and Pakistan to develop "a sequence" for actual negotiations. She gave no other details but stressed that only militants willing to meet certain redlines would be allowed to reintegrate into society. Clinton also confirmed, as U.S. officials have done previously in less detail, that the U.S. has undertaken a larger effort to directly engage Taliban leadership in hopes of promoting talks.
A senior official traveling with Clinton said the Haqqani meeting took place over the summer at the request of Pakistani intelligence, but the official would not give an exact date or the venue for the talks. The official said the Americans had delivered a clear message that "the door is open to those who can meet these redlines" but that those who chose to continue to fight would face intensified attacks.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because elements of the engagement remain classified.
Clinton stressed that military operations against those unwilling to talk would be stepped up and called for Pakistan to assist in "squeezing" the Haqqani network's safe havens on Pakistani soil as the U.S. and Afghan troops mount new operations against Haqqani areas in Afghanistan.
"We're going to continue fighting where necessary to protect our interests and so are the Pakistani military because you cannot allow terrorists to gain ground," she said. "But we also are open to talking."
"We have reached out to the Taliban, we have reached out to the Haqqani network to test their willingness and their sincerity and we are now working among us _ Afghanistan and Pakistan and the United States _ to try to put together a process that would sequence us toward an actual negotiation," Clinton said.
Clinton stressed that the result of the outreach was not clear and noted that the Haqqani meeting was arranged "essentially just to see if they would show up for even a preliminary meeting." She pointed out that after the meeting the Haqqanis attacked a U.S. base in Afghanistan and is believed to be responsible for a strike on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
U.S. officials have accused elements of the Pakistani government of having links with the Haqqanis, something Islamabad has denied.
Clinton said it was unrealistic to think Pakistan's intelligence service did not have connections with insurgents.
"Every intelligence agency has contact with unsavory characters, that is part of the job of being in an intelligence agency," she said. "What we are saying is let's use those contacts to try to bring these people to the table to see whether or not they are going to be cooperative."
"It was the Pakistani intelligence services that brought a Haqqani member to a meeting with an American team. So you have to know where to call them, you have to know where they are."
Several former and current U.S. and Afghan officials have told The AP that the U.S. met with Ibrahim Haqqani, the brother of the elder Jalauddin Haqqani, who heads the Haqqani network. The U.S. also held several meetings with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's former secretary Tayyab Aga. The talks were held in a Persian Gulf country and in Germany, they said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
But Washington's unilateral outreach to the Taliban has angered both Pakistan and the Afghan government. Talks with Aga ground to a halt earlier this year after they were leaked by officials in President Hamid Karzai's office, infuriated that Washington had opened up its own channels of communication with the Taliban.
Pakistan, which has been pressing for greater involvement in negotiations with the Taliban, also was unaware of Washington's talks with Aga.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials in the region said Qatar and Turkey were discussed as possible locations for an office out of which the Taliban could negotiate. One western official in the region said Doha had been selected.
_ Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this story.