U.S. struggles to root out militants in Pakistani madrassa

Locator map of Miram Shah, Pakistan
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:00 AM

The CIA has launched more than 100 drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, but one seemingly obvious target remains conspicuously unscathed.

A religious school near the heart of the country's tribal areas has for years served as an operational hub for the most lethal adversary of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the so-called Haqqani network, according to U.S. officials.

Still, the CIA has refrained from hitting the site, U.S. officials said, out of concern that targeting a religious compound might trigger a violent backlash. The U.S. military cannot attack a site inside Pakistan. And U.S. officials said the Pakistani military has failed to clear militants from the school, or madrassa, even though it maintains a fort less than two miles away.

The madrassa on the edge of Miram Shah has emerged as a symbol of the constraints on the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, where the enemy - and the prospects for a clear victory - often seem to lie beyond U.S. forces' grasp.

Recent U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that Pakistan's reluctance to uproot certain militant groups, including Haqqani's, is a significant obstacle to progress in the war. A White House review released Thursday said progress with Pakistan on the issue "has been substantial, but also uneven."

Over the past year, U.S. troops and the CIA have carried out an unprecedented campaign to pound Haqqani targets on both sides of the border, but a senior U.S. military official involved in the operations said the impact has been "moderate" at best.

"It hasn't changed the will of the Haqqani power base in Pakistan," the senior official said. "They're clearly recruiting and training and shipping large numbers of fighters over to Afghanistan."

The stakes are significant because the Haqqani network is accused of sheltering al-Qaeda in Pakistan's border region, and of using suicide bombings and other brutal tactics to exert control over a key Afghan corridor from Khost to the capital of Kabul. At the same time, U.S. officials believe the network is being protected by Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, which has long-standing ties to the group.

The Haqqani network poses "the most significant threat to the political and economic heart of Afghanistan," the military official said. "And they still benefit from not being under enough pressure."

Pakistan officials insist they have raided the madrassa, known as Manba Ulom, several times and found no evidence of militant activity behind its ornate gates and high walls. But U.S. officials dispute that assertion.

"It's a focal point for Haqqani operations," said a U.S. intelligence official. Beyond the madrassa's use for recruitment, training and planning, the official said, "there is a strong likelihood that senior Haqqani leaders meet there on a regular basis."

The official and others spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to speak by name about U.S. intelligence on Haqqani or suspicion that the network is supported by the government of Pakistan.

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