KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States stepped up pressure on Pakistan Thursday as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said "we are reaching the limits of our patience" with a nominal ally that continues to provide a safe haven to al-Qaida-linked militants.
It was the latest sign that the U.S. is now getting tougher with Pakistan after years of muting criticism and looking the other way on the premise that an uneasy friendship was better than making the nuclear-armed country an outright enemy. As U.S. forces draw down in neighboring Afghanistan, the Americans appear to be pushing Pakistan harder than ever before to squeeze insurgents who find sanctuary within its borders.
Panetta, in the Afghan capital, told reporters he was visiting Kabul to take stock of progress in the war and discuss plans for the troop drawdown. But he used a press conference to strike across the border instead, saying the Pakistani government needs to do more — and soon — to root out the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani terrorist network.
Panetta repeatedly emphasized U.S. frustration with attackers crossing the border from Pakistan. It is essential that Pakistan stop "allowing terrorists to use their country as a safety net in order to conduct their attacks on our forces," he said alongside Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
"We have made that very clear time and time again and we will continue to do that, but as I said, we are reaching the limits of our patience," Panetta said.
The U.S. clearly wants Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis before the bulk of U.S. troops have left the region by the end of 2014. After that, the Afghans would have more trouble contending with the militants, who carry out large-scale attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.
"There may be an increasing realization within the U.S. government that we have a few more years to really go after this problem and time is running out," said Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Panetta's remarks capped a week of some of the boldest language and actions by the administration against its stated ally. Just a day before, he stood in the capital of Pakistan's arch rival, India, and declared that drone strikes against terror suspects would continue, dismissing Pakistan's claims of sovereignty by noting that U.S. sovereignty was jeopardized by terrorists as well.
A senior U.S. official acknowledged Thursday that the recent increase in drone strikes on insurgents in Pakistan — targeting mostly al-Qaida but other militants as well — is partly a result of frustration with Islamabad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.
And earlier this week, NATO sealed agreements to ship tons of supplies out of Afghanistan through northern and western countries, bypassing Pakistan, which has kept its borders closed to NATO trucks in response to the killing of 24 Pakistani troops by NATO forces.
Perhaps most pointedly, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was not invited until the last minute to the NATO summit that President Barack Obama hosted in Chicago last month, and did not get the private meeting with the U.S. leader that he wanted.
Obama also publicly thanked Central Asian nations and Russia for recent help in war supply. He did not mention Pakistan's years of help doing the same thing before the gates were closed last fall.
The United States has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to support both its government and the fight against Islamist militants. The Pakistani military has battled insurgents who attack Pakistani targets but has largely avoided taking on insurgents like the Haqqanis whose sights are set across the border.
The Haqqanis, who also have ties to the Taliban, have emerged as perhaps the biggest threat to stability in Afghanistan. They have been blamed for several attacks on Americans including last year's assault with rocket-propelled grenades against the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul.
Panetta said the U.S. continues to see Haqqani fighters moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan to attack American forces — most recently on June 1 when he said they detonated a truck bomb and then tried to storm Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province.
For more than three decades the group, now led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, has maintained headquarters in Pakistan's Miran Shah district of North Waziristan. Pakistan has denied aiding the Haqqanis, and the Pakistani military has refused to carry out an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region, saying it would unleash a tribal-wide war that Pakistan could not contain.
The increasingly public U.S. frustration with Pakistan comes as Afghanistan's security appears to be worsening. The Afghan government is slated to take control of security countrywide by the end of 2014, but American claims of Afghan-led military operations and Afghan-secured provinces are looking more dubious as the country's summer fighting season swings into gear.
The U.N. said Wednesday was the deadliest day for Afghan civilians since the beginning of the year. More than 40 people were killed in a combination of insurgent attacks and a NATO airstrike that villagers say hit a house full of families gathered for a wedding.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai cut short a trip to China to rush back to Kabul after the attacks. He condemned NATO for failing to provide an explanation for the 18 bodies — most of them women and children — that villagers had piled into vans to show officials as proof that the dead were civilians. A NATO forces spokesman said they were investigating the allegations but had no reports so far of civilian deaths from the airstrike, which had targeted a local Taliban leader in Baraki Barak district of Logar province.
A deal signed in April was supposed to resolve the issue by putting the Afghan government in charge of such operations. But Karzai's statement put all the responsibility for Wednesday's strike on NATO.
The fighting also continues to take the lives of NATO troops. On Thursday, a NATO service member was killed in a bomb attack in the south, the international military coalition said without providing further details.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, has to withdraw 23,000 American troops by the end of September, leaving about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in the country. Once the 23,000 U.S. troops depart, Allen is expected to review how the fighting season is going and then will begin to put together an analysis for Obama on how troop withdrawals will proceed next year.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Kabul and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.