INTERVIEW: Pakistan warns U.S. - "no boots on our ground"

ISLAMABAD Thu Sep 22, 2011 6:44pm IST

Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik speaks during a news conference in Islamabad March 9, 2009. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/Files

Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik speaks during a news conference in Islamabad March 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood/Files

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan would not tolerate any incursion on its territory by U.S. forces targeting militant groups, the country's interior minister said on Thursday, calling for Washington to provide the intelligence Islamabad needs to take them out itself.

Rehman Malik also rejected U.S. allegations that Pakistan's intelligence 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 U.S. ... but they also must respect our sovereignty," he told Reuters in an interview, insisting that Islamabad wanted U.S. intelligence, not troops, to root out insurgents inside Pakistan.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week accused Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) of using the Haqqani Network to wage a "proxy war" on NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.

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

The military calls the shots in Pakistan on defence and security policy but Malik is a prominent member of the civilian government and considered close to President Asif Ali Zardari.

This week he had a meeting with the director of the U.S. 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 Pakistan's unruly ethnic Pashtun tribal region of 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-U.S. feelings," Malik said.

Washington and Islamabad became strategic allies in the "war on terror" after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, but their relationship has been fragile and trust has seeped away on both sides in recent months.

The U.S. administration suspects that Islamabad plays a double game with militants, hunting some down but shielding others to guarantee it has a proxy stake in the political future of Afghanistan when foreign forces withdraw in 2014.

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 Tehreek-e-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 U.S. 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."

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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