Gretchen Peters, a researcher and consultant, is the author of “Haqqani Network Financing: The Evolution of an Industry,” a paper published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, and the 2009 book “Seeds of Terror.” The views expressed here are her own.
As the Obama administration finalizes plans to draw down U.S. operations in Afghanistan, it remains unclear what U.S. officials will do about the Haqqani network, the ultra-violent component of the Taliban that operates from its rear base in North Waziristan, Pakistan.
This weekend brings the congressional deadline for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to decide whether the group meets the criteria for designation as a foreign organization engaging in terrorist activity that threatens U.S. citizens or national security.
This thorny issue has prompted debate among administration officials, with opponents reportedly arguing that the Haqqanis are merely local troublemakers and that a designation would harm U.S.-Pakistani ties, foil Taliban reconciliation efforts and have little effect on the group anyway.
Here is why these arguments are unfounded:
The Haqqanis are widely recognized to be the most ruthless faction of the insurgency, responsible for launching high-profile attacks against U.S. installations and other targets across Afghanistan. The NATO coalition holds the Haqqanis responsible for an attack Sept. 1that killed 12 and injured 59 in Wardak province. Since 2008, their shock troops have struck the U.S. and Indian embassies in Kabul, hotels and restaurants in the Afghan capital, and the headquarters of the NATO-led international force. Intercepts made public last year featured the group’s operations manager live-guiding an assault on a Kabul hotel that killed 13 people.
It’s true that, on their own, the Haqqanis are unlikely to carry out an attack on the U.S. homeland. Those of us who have closely studied the group, however, believe the Haqqanis will continue to host and facilitate extremists in their area, as they have done without interruption since the 1980s. They maintain close ties to al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and other globally focused extremist groups, sharing safe houses and collaborating closely on the wide range of criminal activities in which they engage.
In other words, if the White House is serious about stopping al-Qaeda and other like-minded militant groups, leaving the Haqqanis in place after 2014 is not an option. The Haqqanis provide safe haven to groups plotting to attack the U.S. homeland and are terrorists in their own right.
Even as they acknowledge the Haqqanis’ brutality, some analysts suggest that designating them terrorists could further harm Washington’s delicate relationship with Pakistan by implicating Islamabad as a state sponsor of terrorism.
But the United States has already designated Lashkar-e-Taiba, another Pakistani militant group with long-standing ties to that country’s intelligence services, and the designation has had little impact on the weak relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
What’s more, Pakistani civilian and military officials have signaled that a Haqqani designation would not ruffle feathers in Islamabad.
Then there is the question of whether the terrorist designation would have a concrete effect on the Haqqanis. It could, if properly supported.
The clan-run network has come under considerable military pressure in the past year, yet the group has proved resilient to the tactical campaign, partly because its leaders are hiding out deep inside Pakistan, where they enjoy considerable financial and logistical support.
The Haqqanis operate much like a transnational crime organization, engaging in smuggling, extortion and kidnapping. But they have never had to deal with a sustained, systematic campaign against their financial and logistical infrastructure.
Designating them a terrorist organization would open new avenues for a task force of financial investigators to pursue and dismantle that transnational support network, particularly the group’s financial and real estate holdings.
In partnership with the ongoing tactical campaign, a stepped-up U.S. effort to identify and disrupt Haqqani illicit business activities and logistical supply lines should be modeled on campaigns against used to break up other transnational organized crime groups, from the Cali and Medellin cartels to, more recently, Mexico’s Familia Michoacana.
Some worry that designating the Haqqanis a terrorist entity might undermine U.S. efforts to reconcile with the broader Taliban franchise. Those who study the Taliban — and the long history of failed efforts to broker deals with them — are skeptical that any deal can be achieved.
Consider: Jalaluddin Haqqani has a storied history of treating his adversaries with the utmost brutality; legend has it that in the late 1970s, when he fought the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, he fed members of a visiting peace delegation a rich meal, then slit their throats when they fell asleep.
The network he founded remains as violent as ever, torturing and beheading community members it believes are allies of the United States. It’s especially difficult to imagine that the murderous Haqqanis would enter into a lasting settlement with Washington after the airstrike in Pakistan last month that killed Badruddin Haqqani, one of the network leaders, who coordinated high-profile attacks and kidnappings.
The broad range of the Haqqanis’ business activities also suggests that a sustained war economy may be as important to the group as the Islamist and nationalistic ideals for which they claim to fight. From a political-economy perspective, it’s questionable whether Haqqani leaders seek an end to conflict at all.
In partnership with the ongoing tactical campaign, a targeted operation against the Haqqanis’ financial architecture has the potential to fundamentally destabilize the network. This could also provide the space for a non-predatory power broker to emerge in the group’s area of operations. More important for the White House, it would deny al-Qaeda and other like-minded groups the haven the Haqqanis would inevitably provide.