The Obama Administration is quickly trying to contain the damage in another potential foreign policy debacle, this time with nuclear-armed Pakistan. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, dropped a bombshell that rocked U.S.-Pakistani relations.

In testimony before Congress, Mullen declared that the military intelligence service of this supposed U.S. partner is directing the Haqqani network, a militant group responsible for attacks on Americans, including the 20-hour assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, that left 27 dead.

The revelation causes immediate concern for the United States, and The Heritage Foundation believes it must result in punitive policy toward Pakistan if Islamabad continues its pattern of defiance. Yet Administration officials, quoted anonymously in a front-page Washington Post story this morning, hit out at the messenger, Admiral Mullen. One told the paper that Admiral Mullen “overstates the case.” This Pentagon official admitted that, yes, the Pakistanis have been “guiding Haqqani and using them for their purposes,” but somehow this does not involve killing Americans.

This parsing directly contradicts the very clear words of Admiral Mullen, who told Congress:

Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers. The actions by the Pakistani government to support them–actively and passively–represent a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction.

Why an Administration facing the voters’ mandate in a year’s time would want to sweep troubles with Pakistan under the rug is an open question. What is clear, however, is that the Obama Administration has contributed to this problem. By announcing a calendar for withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Administration has let everyone in the region know that, win or lose, we will leave.

News reports support Admiral Mullen, not the anonymous sources of The Washington Post. They reveal that cell phones found on the attackers were linked to Pakistani intelligence officials. This underlines the troubling reality that Pakistan–to date a U.S. partner in its war against terrorism–is acting directly against U.S. interests. Should Pakistan not change course, Heritage’s Lisa Curtis writes, the United States should react strongly:

Unless Pakistan agrees to take recourse against those ISI officials involved in the September 13 attack and to work more closely with the U.S. in confronting the Haqqani network, the U.S. will have to recalibrate its policy toward Pakistan, despite the potential negative repercussions for other U.S. interests in the region.

For its part, Pakistan’s reactions to Mullen’s testimony have been mixed. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar last week warned that continuing those allegations could cause the U.S. to “lose an ally.” Yesterday she spoke from the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in defense of her country’s record of fighting terrorism while calling for unity with international partners in fighting their common enemy. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said the “negative messaging…is disturbing my people.”

While Khar’s positive shift in rhetoric was welcome, more important are the actions that Pakistan must take going forward. U.S.-Pakistani relations have been strained since the May 2 raid in which U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, who was hiding a mere stone’s throw from Pakistan’s military academy. In light of suspicions that Pakistan helped protect bin Laden, and the country’s resistance to cutting ties with Afghan insurgents, Congress has grown skeptical of the Obama Administration’s call for maintaining diplomatic relations and aid programs to Pakistan, Curtis explains. The latest news only adds fuel to the fire.

Curtis says that if Pakistan continues its defiant attitude and refuses to take action against the perpetrators of the attacks on the U.S. embassy, the U.S. should take punitive actions, including suspending all assistance programs to Pakistan, recalling the American ambassador, readjusting the U.S. force structure in Afghanistan and prioritize finding alternative routes to cope with a disruption or even cutoff in supply routes through Pakistan, immediately listing the Haqqani network as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, stepping up drone strikes on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, reversing U.S. withdrawal plans from Afghanistan, and consulting with European allies on ways to move Pakistan away from the dangerous path it is pursuing.

More than two years ago, President Barack Obama cautioned that in the remote areas of the mountainous Pakistani frontier, al-Qaeda was regrouping, training terrorists, communicating with followers, plotting attacks, and sending fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. He called it “the most dangerous place in the world” and tied global terrorist attacks to al-Qaeda’s leadership in the region. Yet today, a threat has emerged from the government of Pakistan–its complicity in the murder of U.S. citizens serving in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, President Obama remains silent.

In an interview in today’s Wall Street Journal, Admiral Mullen–who is known as Pakistan’s closest friend in Washington–explained that he has taken a harder line because of the threats to American forces. “I am losing people, and I am just not going to stand for that,” he said. “I have been Pakistan’s best friend. What does it say when I am at that point? What does it say about where we are?” President Obama, too, should take a harder line, refuse to stand for Pakistan’s actions and inaction, react strongly to this direct attack on U.S. interests, and insist on a new course.

Quick Hits:

Click here to read today’s Morning Bell in Spanish.