ISLAMABAD/ WASHINGTON: Support is growing in the US Congress for expanding American military action in Pakistan beyond drone strikes already used to target militants in Pakistani territory, a senior Republican US senator says.
The comments by Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican voice on foreign policy and military affairs, follow remarks by the top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, accusing Pakistan last week of supporting the militant Haqqani network's September 13 attack on the US Embassy in Kabul.
(Read more: I have been Pakistan's best friend, says Mullen)
With growing calls for a tougher stance on militants accused of such high-profile attacks, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Washington was closer to deciding whether to label the Haqqanis a terrorist group.
The United States has long pressed Pakistan to pursue the Haqqani network, one of the most lethal Taliban-allied Afghan groups fighting Western forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan-based Haqqani network has been in the spotlight since US officials accused it of mounting this month's attack on the US Embassy in Kabul with the support of Pakistan's powerful military spy agency.
Graham said in an interview on Tuesday that US lawmakers might support military options beyond drone strikes that have been going on for years inside Pakistani territory.
Those options may include using US bomber planes within Pakistan. The South Carolina Republican said he did not advocate sending US ground troops into Pakistan.
"I would say when it comes to defending American troops, you don't want to limit yourself," Graham said. "This is not a boots-on-the-ground engagement -- I'm not talking about that, but we have a lot of assets beyond drones.
"A perfect world ... would be Afghan, Pakistan and (US and NATO) coalition forces working jointly on both sides of border to deny safe havens, inside of Afghanistan and on the other side," in Pakistan's western tribal regions from which the Haqqani network and other militants are believed to operate, Graham said.
Graham said US lawmakers will think about stepping up the military pressure. "If people believe it's gotten to the point that that is the only way really to protect our interests, I think there would be a lot of support," he said.
The Haqqani network is allied with Afghanistan's Taliban and is believed to have close links to al Qaeda. It fights US and NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, operating out of bases in Pakistan's North Waziristan.
"We are in the final, formal review that has to be undertaken to make a government-wide decision to designate the network as a foreign terrorist organization," Clinton said in an appearance with Egypt's visiting foreign minister.
Clinton said Washington already had placed a number of leaders of the Haqqani network on its terrorism blacklist. "We're going to continue to struggle against terrorism and in particular against those who have taken up safe havens inside Pakistan, and we're going to continue to work with our Pakistani counterparts to try and root them out," she said.
A move to name the Haqqanis as a terrorist group would bar US citizens from providing support to the group and freeze any assets it might have in the United States -- a symbolic step that might relieve some of the mounting US political pressure to take a harder line with Pakistan.
Pakistan denies it supports the Haqqanis and says its army is too busy battling its own Taliban insurgency to go after the network, which is estimated to have 10,000 to 15,000 fighters. Some analysts have speculated that the State Department has not yet taken that formal step in hopes the Haqqanis could be reconciled as part of Afghan peace talks between the government and insurgents.
Any such talks now seem unlikely at best. US drone aircraft in recent years have targeted mostly al Qaeda figures rather than Haqqani militants. Increased US military action on Pakistani soil, including the idea of US soldiers crossing the porous border from Afghanistan, would be deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Pakistan viewed the US military raid in May that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden as a grievous breach of its sovereignty.
The tense ties between Pakistan and the United States worsened last week after Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI spy agency.
Graham, known as a hawk, said on Sunday that the United States must consider all options "including defending our troops" in confronting Pakistani support for militant networks active in Afghanistan.
Such remarks from the US Congress, where patience has worn thin with Pakistan, have intensified speculation that the United States might resort to another cross-border raid such as the one that killed bin Laden, intensify drone attacks in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions or send in bomber planes to attack militant hide-outs.
Lawmakers are proposing to restrict US aid with stricter conditions under which Pakistan, which possesses nuclear arms but is desperately poor, can access US military and economic assistance. The unusually public criticism from Washington has provoked anger among Pakistani leaders who warn that the United States may lose a key ally in an unstable region.