Just days before a congressional deadline, the Obama administration is deeply divided over whether to designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani network as a terrorist group, with some officials worried that doing so could complicate efforts to restart peace talks with the Taliban and undermine already-fraught relations with Pakistan.
In early August, Congress gave Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton 30 days to determine whether the Haqqani group, considered the most lethal opponent of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, meets the criteria for designation — a foreign organization engaging in terrorist activity that threatens U.S. citizens or national security.
If she says it does not, Clinton must explain her rationale in a report that is due to Congress on Sept. 9. Acknowledgment that the group meets the criteria, however, would probably force the administration to take action, which is strongly advocated by the military but has been resisted by the White House and some in the State Department.
Senior officials have repeatedly called the Haqqani network the most significant threat to the U.S. goal of exiting a relatively peaceful Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and have accused Pakistan of direct support for its leadership. The network has conducted a series of lethal, high-profile attacks against U.S. targets.
In recent weeks, the military has reiterated its call for Pakistan to prove its counterterrorism commitment by attacking Haqqani sanctuaries in its North Waziristan tribal area. The CIA has escalated drone attacks on Haqqani targets, including a strike last week that administration officials said killed the son of the network’s founder and its third-ranking official.
But just as there are reasons to designate the network a terrorist group, there are several factors weighing against the move, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the administration’s closed-door deliberations.
Those factors include a tenuous rapprochement with Pakistan that led in early July to the reopening of vital U.S. military supply lines into Afghanistan; hopes that the autumn end of this year’s Afghan fighting season will bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table after the suspension of talks in March; and a reconfigured U.S. offer on a prisoner exchange that could lead to the release of the only U.S. service member being held by the militants.
After a White House meeting last week in which President Obama’s top national security advisers aired divergent views, Clinton is said to remain undecided as aides prepare a list of options. She has avoided taking action on the issue since assuring lawmakers late last year that she was undertaking a “final” review.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have long argued that labeling the Haqqani group a Foreign Terrorist Organization — a relatively short list of about four dozen entities that does not include the Taliban — is one of the most important steps the administration could take to win the war.
In a series of meetings and video conferences with Washington, Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has said he “needs more tools” to fight the Haqqanis and asked specifically for the designation, one administration official said.
A recent report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point called the Haqqani network “an efficient, transnational jihadi industry” that has “penetrated key business sectors, including import-export, transport, real estate and construction in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab Gulf and beyond” and could be effectively undermined by designation as a terrorist organization.
Designation is “a key first step toward actively targeting the group’s international financial activity and support network,” according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats unit. The unit is headed by Frederick W. Kagan, a leading counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan and to Allen’s predecessor, current CIA Director David H. Petraeus.
But others in the White House and State Department argue that the designation would be largely for show and would have little substantive effect.
Individual Haqqani leaders have already been designated as terrorists, and U.S. entities are prohibited from dealing with them. Separate designations, by the Treasury Department or the United Nations, or under an existing executive order, could achieve the same result as adding the network to the far more prominent State Department list.
Drawing a line between the Haqqanis and the Taliban will only make peace negotiations harder, said a second U.S. official who opposes designation. Administration policy “heavily depends on a political solution,” this official said. “Why not do everything we can to promote that? Why create one more obstacle, which is largely symbolic in nature?”
These officials fundamentally disagree with the assessment that the Haqqanis are a separate entity from the Taliban and are irreconcilable, and argue that the military is using the Haqqanis as an excuse to mask its own difficulties in the war.
For its part, Pakistan’s powerful military insists that it has no preference in what one senior officer called “an internal matter for the United States to decide.” But while it denies U.S. charges of complicity with or control over the Haqqanis, there is little doubt the Pakistanis are closest to the Haqqani group within the Taliban organization, and they have pressed for its inclusion in any peace negotiations.
“From our point of view, reconciliation has to be very broad-based,” the military official said. “The Haqqanis are not an individual entity. . . . They’re a part of the conversation, whatever that is.”
Although intelligence assessments differ in degree and the groups appear operationally independent to some degree, the Haqqani organization is generally considered to be one of three subgroups under the overall leadership of Taliban chief Mohammad Omar and the top-level council he heads in Quetta, in southern Pakistan.
Talks between U.S. and Taliban officials that began in late 2010 were suspended in March when the militants charged that the Americans had altered the terms of a potential prisoner swap in which five Taliban members held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be exchanged in two groups for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held since 2009 by the Haqqanis.
Underlying the stated reason for the suspension, U.S. officials believe that the Taliban is split on many levels over the talks — between field commanders and Pakistan-based leaders, between different factions and among individuals vying for power in a future Afghanistan.
But Haqqani provision of a proof-of-life video of Bergdahl, delivered through Taliban negotiators in February 2011, as well as a public profession of fealty to Omar by the Haqqani leadership in September, convinced some officials that a deal with one was tantamount to a deal with the other.
In June, the Americans transmitted a new offer to the Taliban, through the government of Qatar, in which Bergdahl’s release would come with the release of the second Guantanamo group rather than the first. They do not expect a response until after the end of the summer fighting season.