The top uniformed American military official used an interview on Pakistani television Wednesday to accuse the country's spy agency of supporting a leading Afghan insurgent group that's killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The unusually direct remarks from Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who's been known in the past for playing the "good cop" role on the U.S. side of the rocky relationship between the countries, appeared to signal that the United States is running out of patience with what it suspects is Pakistani double-dealing on the war against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan.
Mullen said that Pakistan's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, has a "relationship" with the Haqqani network, a group close to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, that ends up costing the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Ties between the United States and Pakistan, close anti-terrorism allies since 2001, have plummeted since January, when an American contractor working for the CIA, Raymond Davis, shot dead two Pakistani men in Lahore, claiming that they were armed and trying to rob him.
The Davis episode exposed secret CIA operations that spy on extremist groups considered close to the ISI, which has historically nurtured jihadist groups that fight as its proxies in India and Afghanistan.
The fallout meant the near-cessation of CIA-run drone attacks on suspected extremists in Pakistan's tribal area after Pakistani official protests over the strikes.
"The ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network. That doesn't mean everybody in the ISI. But it's there," Mullen said in an interview broadcast Wednesday evening on Geo News, Pakistan's leading news channel. "I believe over time that's got to change."
The remarks seemed carefully calculated and weren't prompted by a direct question on the issue. Mullen used nearly the same language in separate interviews with two Pakistani newspapers.
Usually, Mullen, who's made 22 visits to Pakistan, has used his public pronouncements here to trumpet the strength of his personal relationship with Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and has diligently avoided incendiary remarks on Pakistan even when other U.S. officials were critical. The ISI works directly under the Pakistani military.
But on Wednesday he pulled no punches.
"Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen," he said.
"So that's at the core -- it's not the only thing -- but that's at the core that I think is the most difficult part of the (U.S.-Pakistan) relationship," Mullen said in an interview with Dawn, a Pakistani daily newspaper.
Washington considers the drone strikes, the only weapon available to the U.S. against al-Qaida and other extremists holed up in Pakistan's tribal area, to be highly effective. However, the attacks have often targeted the Haqqani group.