The Obama administration struck a largely symbolic blow Friday against what it considers the most violent and intransigent enemy of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, declaring that it will add the Pakistan-based Haqqani network to its list of terrorist organizations.
Ordered by Congress last month to label the Taliban affiliate an official terrorist group or explain why it didn’t qualify, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton informed lawmakers that she will designate the Haqqani group the 52nd entry on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.
“We also continue our robust campaign of diplomatic, military, and intelligence pressure on the network, demonstrating the United States’ resolve to degrade the organization’s ability to execute violent attacks,” Clinton, who is traveling in the Far East, said in a statement.
The Haqqanis have been linked to a series of high-profile attacks on U.S. and other foreign personnel in Afghanistan, including the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul a year ago. Military and intelligence officials have expressed concern that if the network is not defeated or degraded in the coming months, it could mount a significant challenge to Afghan security forces after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014.
The terrorist designation prohibits Haqqani members from traveling to the United States, freezes its assets in this country and bars Americans from providing any financial or material support. The notification on Friday triggered a 10-day period before the designation takes effect.
With no known Haqqani resources in this country, the action reflects the administration’s frustration with its inability to stop the group’s assaults on U.S. installations in Afghanistan and with Pakistan’s refusal to crack down on Haqqani havens in tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan.
One administration official said the label “gives us a stronger tool . . .for going out to other countries” and urging them to take similar actions. In addition to kidnapping and smuggling, the Haqqanis are said to have access to substantial funds from both legal and illegal businesses in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under conditions of a State Department-arranged conference call with reporters.
But another official, speaking without official authorization, called the designation “all theatrics,” saying it “doesn’t mean anything.”
Long before Congress forced its hand, the administration was engaged in a debate over what the designation would achieve.
U.S. military commanders have strongly supported the designation. While the military has claimed progress against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, fighting has escalated in the eastern part of the country, where network founder Jalaluddin Haqqani and his family-led fighters operate within a wide swath of territory.
A powerful, longtime player in Afghanistan, Haqqani received U.S. and Pakistani aid to fight against occupation by the Soviet Union there in the 1980s. He later became an official in the Taliban government that was ousted with U.S. assistance in 2001. He then fled into Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area and began to organize attacks against U.S. forces.
In testimony last fall just before leaving office as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen called the network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. U.S. officials have said Pakistan sees the Haqqanis as useful leverage for its interests in Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal.
Some critics of the administration’s Pakistan policy, citing Mullen’s statement and others, have said that if the administration thinks Pakistan is working with the Haqqanis, it should label Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, a separate State Department designation that now lists four nations — Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan.
But administration officials, already concerned that the Haqqani designation would undermine the fragile U.S.-Pakistan relationship, hastened Friday to insist that they intended no such thing.
“I want to just unequivocally state . . . that we are making absolutely no effort to begin a process to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism,” an official on the conference call said. “If anything . . . [the Pakistanis] have been an extremely valuable ally in countering extremism and terrorism, and we are committed to continuing and maintaining and increasing that coordination and cooperation.”
Despite the concerns, Islamabad’s initial reaction was muted. Moazzam Khan, a Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman, said the designation had nothing to do with Pakistan. “The Haqqanis are Afghanis,” he said. “They are Afghan nationals. Pakistan really doesn’t have a comment” on what he called “a decision by the U.S. government.”
Pakistan’s embassy in Washington released a statement saying, “We will continue to work with all international partners, including the U.S., in combatting extremism and terrorism.”
In Kabul, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said the Afghan government “strongly welcomed” the decision. He objected to Pakistan’s effort to distance itself from the Haqqanis, saying, “They have a free environment there and places to plan any attack on Afghan soil.”
The Obama administration was also concerned that the designation would jeopardize stalled Taliban peace talks and the fate of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who has been held by militants since 2009. “Until now we treated him very well, but this move by the United States will of course create hardships for him,” Reuters news service quoted a senior Haqqani commander saying of Bergdahl.
Bergdahl’s situation reflects additional disagreements within the administration over whether the Haqqani network is under the direction of the main Taliban organization, based in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta and headed by Mohammad Omar, or is a separate entity.
U.S. officials who began peace talks with Omar lieutenant Tayyab al-Agha in 2010 rejected any participation by the Haqqanis after last fall’s embassy attack. But at the same time, the officials negotiated with Agha for a prisoner swap in which Bergdahl — who is being held by the Haqqanis — would be released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Taliban suspended the negotiations in March, charging U.S. bad faith. Although the terrorism designation does not prohibit U.S. talks, officials opposed to it worry that it could undercut Bergdahl’s chances in negotiations they hope will resume this fall.
Criteria for listing as a Foreign Terrorist Organization include terrorist activities against the United States and its interests. While the Taliban is on several other U.S. and international terrorism compilations, it is not listed as an FTO. The Haqqani network will be the fourth group added to the list over the past year. Seven groups have been removed from the list since 1999.
Richard Leiby in Kabul contributed to this report.