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Pakistan, Afghanistan begin talks about dealing with insurgents

By Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung
Saturday, June 19, 2010; A01

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Afghanistan and Pakistan are talking about how to make peace with insurgents fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including one faction considered the coalition forces' most lethal foe, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials.

The discussions reflect the beginnings of a thaw in relations between Kabul and Islamabad, which are increasingly focused on shaping the aftermath of what they fear could be a more abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops than is now anticipated. But one element of the effort -- outreach by Pakistan to the militia headed by the young commander Sirajuddin Haqqani -- faces opposition from U.S. officials, who consider the al-Qaeda-linked group too brutal to be tolerated.

At Pakistan's suggestion, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the chief of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, made an unprecedented trip last month to Kabul to discuss with Afghan President Hamid Karzai a wide range of possible cooperation, including mediating with Pakistan-based insurgents.

Several weeks ago, Pasha and Pakistan's army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, returned to continue the discussion. There is no agreement between the two nations, but a Pakistani security official said the outreach to insurgents is "not a problem."

The previously undisclosed visits came as the United States, gradually warming to the idea of reconciliation with insurgents, encourages improved relations between the two governments, which have long viewed each other with suspicion. But Obama administration officials have cautioned Afghanistan and Pakistan that they will not support talks with Haqqani's militia.

"We think reconciliation has to have an Afghan face," a senior administration official said in Washington, adding that the United States "understands" the desire to talk. But the United States has made clear, the official said, that "we expect to be treated as full partners and not to be surprised." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing frictions with allies.

The talks are a reminder that Afghanistan and Pakistan each has an agenda independent of its relationship with the United States and that they may draw different lines in deciding how and when to make peace.

Haqqani's adoption in recent years of suicide bombings and complex urban assaults has made his faction, based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, a top threat to military gains and political stability in Afghanistan. The CIA and U.S. military think that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency retains links with, and possibly assists, Haqqani, and they have pressed Pakistan to target his sanctuaries.

In a recent meeting with Pakistan's army chief, U.S. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen; and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, presented evidence that deadly attacks in Afghanistan last month on a NATO convoy and the main coalition air base were commanded and controlled by Haqqani from Miram Shah, the largest city in North Waziristan, where Pakistan maintains a military base.

National security adviser James L. Jones has carried the same message of caution on Haqqani in recent visits to Pakistan, essentially saying that the only outreach the Pakistani government directs toward him should be at the end of a gun.

Pakistan denies that it supports Haqqani, who they say spends much of his time in Afghanistan. But Pakistani security officials said they could reopen old ties to the network, which they think could be used to persuade other insurgent factions to pursue a political settlement.

Pakistan has long advocated that course, and it has been angling for a role in Kabul's potential negotiations. Some Pakistani officials viewed Karzai's firing this month of his intelligence chief and interior minister, both highly critical of Pakistan, as a "goodwill gesture," one security official here said.

Taliban's vanguard

As U.S. troops focus counterinsurgency efforts on the Taliban's southern hub, Haqqani, who is in his 30s, is expanding the southeastern front through attacks on American forces and through ruthless intimidation of locals, along with deep ties to other militant groups spanning the border. U.S. military officials and terrorism analysts say Haqqani's bold and brutal style embodies the Taliban's vanguard: younger commanders driven more by anti-Western zeal than by the nationalist aspirations of their elders.

"The suicide bombers come from this class," said Ali Ashraf, director of the FATA Research Center in Islamabad, which studies the tribal areas. "If the leadership comes into this class, it's going to be extremely dangerous."

Haqqani's fairly autonomous network is the single largest insurgent force, according to some estimates, and is an important bridge between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It has expressed no interest in peacemaking, Afghan and U.S. officials say.

The rising U.S. pressure on North Waziristan, including stepped-up attacks carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles, has caused Pakistan to step up its push for a negotiating role in dealing with the Taliban. Beyond the Haqqani group, Pakistan maintains ties with other Taliban factions, including the dominant Afghan Taliban, headed by Mohammad Omar, and an allied group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

On the Afghan side, envoys representing Karzai have met with representatives of the Afghan Taliban's leadership council, or Quetta Shura, but regard the Haqqani group with greater suspicion.

Maintaining alliances

Haqqani's network was founded by his father, Jalaluddin, a legendary Afghan mujaheddin leader whose anti-Soviet campaign during the 1980s was backed by Pakistan and the CIA. After the elder Haqqani passed the reins to Sirajuddin in recent years, the organization has swelled in lethality and in size, to as many as 10,000 fighters.

Like his father, Haqqani has thrived in part by maintaining delicate alliances with the border region's militant factions. Haqqani holds a seat on al-Qaeda's leadership council, analysts say, and receives ample funding from Arab backers. In North Waziristan, where the Haqqanis run religious schools and militant training camps, he has mediated disputes among factions of the Pakistani Taliban, from which he plucks fighters, said Ashraf, the researcher.

Haqqani, who is described by those who know him as soft-spoken, said in an audio recording in April that his group's cooperation with the Taliban and al-Qaeda was "at its highest limits."

Unlike the farmers who make up much of the southern insurgency dominated by Omar's Taliban, Haqqani's forces include foreign fighters and are largely drawn from madrassas, or Islamic schools, and thus tend to be more extreme. They rely on assassinations, shakedowns and kidnappings-for-ransom but show little interest in politics, military officials said.

"The Haqqanis are not here offering their brand of governance or development. The Taliban are," a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan said. "They're not a popular organization, but they're a powerful one."

Two weeks ago, a band of Haqqani fighters rounded up all the men in one village of Afghanistan's Khost province, residents said. They marched 10 into a valley, then blindfolded, bound and fatally shot six -- among them a 16-year-old student and a tribal elder -- on suspicion of spying.

"The son doesn't care which tribe is the enemy or friend of another," Abdul Wali, a tribal elder in Paktia province, near where the killings took place, said of Sirajuddin Haqqani. "He and his fighters just want to do terrorist activities."

Some observers say Haqqani's brutal tactics and perceived closeness to Pakistan have strained his relations with Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader, who has repudiated tactics that kill civilians.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Joby Warrick and special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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