ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's president promised to work with the United States to "eradicate" the militant Haqqani network, a pledge made during a meeting with visiting American congressmen, according to one of the lawmakers.
But the head of the Homeland Security delegation, Michael McCaul, downplayed the significance of the remarks, saying it was unclear whether President Asif Ali Zardari had the power to make good on his pledge, given the influence of the military in Pakistan.
According to McCaul, Zardari also appeared to brush off threats that U.S. aid spending to Pakistan could be significantly cut if Islamabad did not do more to squeeze insurgents like the Haqqanis, who are based in northwest Pakistan but attack U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.
"I think he thinks it's a given that we are going to continue the aid, but I tried to tell him that it's in jeopardy," McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, said of Zardari. "He said, 'I appreciate your assistance, but it's trade more than aid that I need."'
McCaul and the visiting lawmakers met with Zardari in the Pakistani port city of Karachi on Tuesday, and revealed details of his conversation later the same day.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan have plummeted over the last year following the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor and the American unilateral raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. Persistent allegations that Pakistani security forces are aiding or tolerating Afghan insurgents have led many U.S. lawmakers to call for cuts in the billions of dollars in aid given to Pakistan.
The Haqqani network is an al-Qaida linked militant group with roots in eastern Afghanistan that has long been based in the Pakistani border region of North Waziristan. U.S. and NATO officials say it is currently the most deadly foe in Afghanistan.
The problem is especially acute because Washington is committed to withdrawing most of its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Seeing the country fall back into the hands of the Taliban or descend into bloody civil war would be a crushing failure for Washington.
The U.S. has been applying steady pressure on Pakistan to tackle the Haqqanis, but with little effect.
"The president, on the record, said 'I am going to work with you to eradicate them,"' McCaul said. He further quoted Zardari as saying: "I know these people very well, they are snakes and I'm going to go after all of them."
McCaul said he welcomed the president's statement, but "the real question is how much does this president control the military" and the country's spy service.
Zardari heads a democratically elected civilian government, but the military, which has ruled Pakistan for much of its existence, does not follow his orders when it comes to Afghan policy and other defense issues. McCaul said the American delegation asked to meet the Pakistani army and spy chiefs, but this was not possible.
The Pakistani military views neighboring India -- and not Islamist militants at home -- as the country's biggest threat and sees Afghanistan through that lens. Consequently, Islamabad is widely believed to be reluctant to move against the Haqqanis because it sees them as potential allies against Indian influence in Afghanistan when America withdraws.
In talks late last month with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other American officials, Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani recognized the need to "squeeze the Haqqanis," a senior U.S. official said at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Greater intelligence sharing, cutting financing networks and stopping fighters from crossing the border were discussed, he said.