Republican and Democratic lawmakers are urging U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to designate a militant group behind attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan as a “foreign terrorist organization,” an action that might further strain U.S. relations with Pakistan.
The lawmakers are seeking the terrorist designation for the Haqqani network, which President Barack Obama’s former top military adviser, Admiral Mike Mullen, last September testified “acts as a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence services.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan sees the Haqqanis as a tool for protecting its interests in Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdraw, say analysts such as Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation. U.S. officials who oppose designating the group warn about damaging relations with ally Pakistan that are already “badly frayed,” according to Curtis.
“Once you designate the Haqqani network, how do you not designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview.
U.S. officials held talks with a Haqqani representative in 2011 to test the group’s willingness to engage in peace talks with Afghans.
In their letter to Clinton, the lawmakers pressed for immediate action by noting the “sensational and indiscriminate” attacks on U.S. and allied forces and Afghans by the Haqqani network, which is allied with the Taliban and based in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal region.
“The group poses a continuing threat to innocent men, women and children in the region,” read the letter, signed by lawmakers including Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The administration may have been reluctant to designate the Haqqani network as a terrorist group while Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman tried to negotiate a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban, the lawmakers wrote. Last week, during their visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told them there have been no talks since late last year, they wrote.
“It is clear there is now no reason not to designate the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization,” they said, noting that the State Department began a final review of the question in November.
Tension over Goals
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland yesterday said the review continues on whether to designate the group. The U.S. previously has cited the group’s leaders, which enables the administration to freeze any U.S.-based assets and pursue civil and criminal penalties against U.S. individuals who conduct any transactions with them.
Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy group, said in an interview that the question of designation within the administration is “a somewhat contentious issue.”
The U.S. sees both Pakistan’s stability and successful peace talks on Afghanistan as essential to the stability of the region.
“There’s a tension between our counterterrorism objectives and our reconciliation objectives, which produces a reluctance to act on the Haqqani network,” Riedel said.
The April 15 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is widely thought to have been a Haqqani operation. “That is probably strengthening the hand of those who want to designate it,” Curtis said.
Nuland said the question is whether a group designation, such as was applied to al-Qaeda, is as effective as individually targeting specific people.
“We consider it absolutely essential to designate individuals because that allows us to pursue the assets of individuals rather than have to sort of try to divine who might be covered by a blanket designation,” Nuland said.
U.S. relations with Pakistan have been strained by a number of disputes, including U.S. cross-border airstrikes from Afghanistan in November that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan cut off land-based supply routes to Afghanistan and none have been reopened.
Pakistani leaders have allowed an insurgent sanctuary in North Waziristan “due to their concerns that Pakistan will be left alone to confront an unstable, an unfriendly or an Indian-influenced Afghanistan on its borders,” according to a U.S. Defense Department report issued April 30.
The report outlined several attempts at meetings to improve relations, concluding that the U.S. and Pakistan have “divergent strategic interests” that “continue to make genuine cooperation difficult.”
Taliban and allied Haqqani network attacks from northwest Pakistan “continue to threaten the emergence of a durable and stable political solution,” the report said.