ISLAMABAD - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Friday that stern action would have to be taken against Afghan and Pakistani militants if they did not cooperate in efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and pursue peace.
After 10 years of war, it was time to get the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, involved in those efforts, Clinton said.
"Now we have to turn our attention here on the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, Haqqani and other terrorist groups and try to get them into a peace process," Clinton told a news conference in Islamabad.
"But if that failed, prevent them from committing more violence and murdering more innocent people," she said.
Pakistan is seen as critical to the U.S. drive to end the conflict in Afghanistan, but it is often an uneasy relationship.
Pressure on Islamabad to take decisive steps against militants has been mounting since U.S. special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in May in a Pakistani garrison town, where he had apparently been living for years.
On Thursday, Clinton, CIA director David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey delivered a tough message to Pakistani leaders to crack down on militants, especially groups like the Haqqanis that are blamed for attacks on American targets in Afghanistan.
"We had a very in-depth conversation with specifics. And we are looking forward to taking that conversation and operationalising it over the next days and weeks, not months and years, days and weeks," she said, adding "we have a lot of work to do to realize our shared goals".
The secret bin Laden raid caused the worst damage to ties between the allies since Pakistan joined the U.S. "war on terror" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Pakistan's military said the raid was a flagrant violation of sovereignty, while in Washington U.S. officials wondered whether an ally that receives billions of dollars in American aid had been sheltering the world's most wanted man.
Pakistan said it had no idea bin Laden was there.
Clinton, speaking alongside Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, urged Pakistan to cooperate more on the Haqqani network, which Washington believes is based in North Waziristan near the Afghan border.
The United States had not publicly spelled out exactly how it wanted the Pakistanis to handle the Haqqanis but Clinton urged them to use persuasion to end the threat by Haqqani militants who have been responsible for a number of recent major attacks in Afghanistan.
Asked at a town hall meeting in Islamabad whether she wanted Pakistan to use its military to tackle the Haqqani network head-on or to force it to come to the negotiating table, Clinton replied: "It's more the latter."
"We think that Pakistan for a variety of reasons has the capacity to encourage, to push, to squeeze ... terrorists, including the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban, to be willing to engage in the peace process," she said.
Analysts say the Pakistani military could suffer heavy casualties if it took on the Haqqanis. Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the network, recently told Reuters he had more than 10,000 fighters under his command.
Clinton said Pakistan would itself suffer if it failed.
"You can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours," she said.
Friday's joint news conference came a day after what had been described as "extremely frank" discussions Clinton and her heavyweight team held with their Pakistani counterparts.
The mood seemed less tense on Friday.
"It seems they are making an effort, a genuine effort to improve the relations," said political analyst Talat Masood.
"To what extent they succeed, we can't tell now. There seems to be desire on both sides to improve the relationship."
Clinton seemed to put more emphasis on Pakistan as a potential peacemaker in Afghanistan instead of focusing on its failure to eliminate militancy in the border area.
"Coalition and Afghan forces are increasing the pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan," Clinton said.
"And across the border, we look to Pakistan to take strong steps to deny Afghan insurgents safe havens and to encourage the Taliban to enter negotiations in good faith."
Khar said there was no question of any Pakistani support for safe havens, saying its position was "unequivocal".
Pakistan argues that it can't go after the Haqqanis because the army has its hands full with homegrown Taliban militants.
It also has to contend with others like Maulvi Fazlullah, an Afghanistan-based Taliban leader who has vowed to return to fight the government and then U.S. forces in Afghanistan after melting away during an army offensive in 2009.
Fazlullah re-emerged as a threat in recent months when his fighters took part in cross-border raids that killed around 100 Pakistani security forces.
Pakistani leaders must always tread cautiously because anti-U.S. sentiments run high. Many Pakistanis are angered by U.S. drone strikes against militants in the northwest, and say the country's army is fighting a war based on American interests.
About 90 people staged a protest in the eastern town of Multan against Clinton's visit. Clinton said, despite frequently strained ties, "we cannot walk away". Analysts saw few signs of flexibility in Washington's demands.
"I think there is an effort to mend the fence but at the same time I see very little sign of flexibility in the American approach to get tough with Pakistan," said Riffat Hussain, chairman of defence and strategic studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. (Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Paul Tait)
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.