Eleven days ago, the United States' top military official seemed to sum up Washington's current relationship with Pakistan when he accused the country's premiere intelligence service of supporting insurgents who attacked the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
But what Admiral Mike Mullen did not say is that the U.S. had secretly met with a member of that same insurgent group -- known as the Haqqani network -- as part of efforts to find a political end to the war in Afghanistan, and that the institution that helped set up the meeting was the same intelligence agency he had condemned: the Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence, or I.S.I.
The meeting, according to two current U.S. officials and a former U.S. official, was held in the months before the Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO's military headquarters, which U.S. officials have blamed on the Haqqani network. In his congressional testimony Sept. 22, Mullen called the Haqqanis a "veritable arm" of the I.S.I., but failed to mention that the I.S.I. facilitated the meeting between the U.S. and Ibrahim Haqqani, a son of founder Jalaluddin Haqqani and a major player in the group, according to a senior U.S. official.
The meeting suggests there is much more to the recent spat between Islamabad and Washington while the violence in Afghanistan has increased as U.S. troops have begun to withdraw. At stake, U.S. officials said, is how they will try to reduce the violence in Afghanistan and to what extent Pakistan will be allowed a say.
From Pakistan's point of view, military and intelligence officials have long argued that their connections with the Haqqani network -- going back decades in the Pakistani tribal areas and in Afghanistan -- can facilitate the only way to end the war: through political negotiation. But for U.S. officials, even as the debate in Washington continues over the best way to wind down the war, there was a high-level decision after the embassy attack to name and shame the I.S.I. for supporting the Haqqanis, hoping it would work where no previous pressure or incentives placed on Pakistan had worked, according to a senior Western official.
The very public criticism of the I.S.I. was also a sign of American military frustration.
One official said that it was Pakistan's intelligence service who urged the U.S. to hold the meeting. The U.S. agreed, the I.S.I. set it up, and then the meeting took place – but then violence launched by the Haqqanis increased and targeted the heart of Western power in Kabul, infuriating the U.S.
The U.S. was also enraged by what seemed to be either apathy or connivance in the single most violent attack of the war as far as injuries to U.S. soldiers. Three days before the embassy bombing, a truck bomb blew up outside an American base outside Kabul, injuring 77 soldiers. Just days before that, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, had made his first visit to Pakistan's military headquarters. During the visit, according to a separate senior U.S. official, he asked Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Pervez Ashfaq Kayani to try to stop a truck bomb that the U.S. believed was about to target U.S. soldiers. Kayani offered to help, the official said, but the bomb blew up anyway. Allen's request was first reported by The Guardian.
The fact that the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence service set up the meeting with Haqqani and discussed how to stop a Haqqani attack suggests a much more nuanced -- and very often, confounding -- relationship with Pakistan's intelligence service than Adm. Mullen and other military officials have publicly admitted in the last two weeks.
The Pakistanis, in turn, have tried to portray themselves as the victims of a smear campaign headed by Mullen. As Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari wrote in the Washington Post Friday, "While we are accused of harboring extremism, the United States is engaged in outreach and negotiations with the very same groups."
Complicating matters is the deteriorating relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghan officials have jumped on American criticism of Pakistan to threaten to cut off bilateral attempts to make peace. President Hamid Karzai, responding to massive pressure from political parties that have long opposed the Taliban, has slightly changed his tune on Pakistan in the last two weeks.
Up until the assassination of former President Burhannudin Rabbani on Sept. 20, Karzai was the most vocal Afghan proponent of a strong bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As early as one year ago, a senior advisor told ABC News that Pakistan could "help deliver a peace that the U.S. can't."
But since Rabbani's death, Karzai has criticized the Pakistani government for not helping the peace process. In a nationally televised speech tonight, he repeated that criticism and named the many Afghan officials believed to have been targeted by Pakistan-based militants. Still, he said he hoped the two "brotherly" countries could work together.
U.S. officials are trying to encourage the bilateral relationship and reschedule a tripartite meeting about Afghan reconciliation that was scheduled for Oct. 8, but has been indefinitely postponed by Karzai. U.S. diplomatic officials argue that without a robust dialogue between all three countries, there is little chance that the violence in Afghanistan will reduce.
But still, they admit they have little to show for efforts to find a political settlement to the war.
Asked whether the meeting with Ibrahim Haqqani meeting produced any results, a U.S. official responded with a one-word answer: "no."
[Editor's Note: A previous version of this report said the U.S. asked Pakistani intelligence to set up the meeting with the Haqqani representative. An official told ABC News Pakistani intelligence actually requested the U.S. attend the meeting.]