People shout anti-American slogans at a rally to condemn U.S. strikes on militants' hideouts in Pakistani tribal areas, in Multan, Pakistan. (Khalid Tanveer/AP)

The Obama administration has launched the opening salvos of a new, more aggressive approach toward an Afghan insurgent group it asserts is supported by Pakistan’s government, senior administration officials said.

A CIA drone strike Thursday killed three members of the Haqqani network, including a senior official, and additional strikes Friday left four insurgents dead. The attacks in Pakistan were carried out near Haqqani headquarters in the North Waziristan capital of Miran Shah, a city rarely targeted in the past because of the difficulty of finding well-concealed insurgent leaders and the possibility of civilian deaths in an urban area.

The decision to strike Miran Shah was made at a National Security Council meeting chaired by President Obama two weeks ago and was intended to “send a signal” that the United States would no longer tolerate a safe haven for the most lethal enemy of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s backing for it, said one of several U.S. officials who spoke about internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

The strikes were made possible by focusing intelligence collection to “allow us to pursue certain priorities,” the official said. The senior Haqqani figure, Janbaz Zadran, was selected along with other targets to “demonstrate how seriously we take the Miran Shah” threat.

Military options debated at the Sept. 29 meeting were set aside for now, officials said, including the possibility of a ground operation against Haqqani leaders similar to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. Although the administration has left the raid option on the table, the potential negatives of such an operation — including the possible collapse of Pakistan’s military leadership and civilian government — are seen as far outweighing its benefits.

Even as it cracks down on the Haqqani network, the White House has authorized more intensive reconciliation efforts with its leaders and those of other Afghan insurgent groups, leaving open a track initiated in August when U.S. officials met in a Persian Gulf kingdom with Ibrahim Haqqani, the brother of the group’s patriarch. The meeting was arranged by Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who also attended.

Marc Grossman, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, left Sept. 30 on an extended trip to the broader South and Central Asian region in hopes of persuading governments there, including China, to join and support an international reconciliation effort.

With major international conferences on the war scheduled for Nov. 2 in Istanbul and Dec. 5 in Bonn, Germany, “what we want to do is provide an international basis of support for a political outcome in Afghanistan” that will match the military timeline adopted by NATO last November, the administration official said.

There has been widespread speculation that insurgent representatives may attend on the margins of either or both meetings, although “I wouldn’t hazard a prediction at this point,” the official said.

An additional outcome of the NSC meeting, officials said, was an order for various players — the Defense Department, the CIA, the State Department, and the White House itself — to stop sending mixed messages to Pakistan and others about the administration’s war policies.

Series of high-profile attacks

Long-simmering internal conflicts came to a head with the Sept. 22 congressional testimony of Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who openly accused Pakistani intelligence of responsibility for a series of high-profile recent Haqqani network attacks in Afghanistan, including on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The testimony started a chain reaction, leading to congressional calls to end U.S. aid to Pakistan and avowals by new Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that the administration would do whatever was necessary to stop the Haqqanis from killing U.S. forces.

Others within the administration were taken aback. The State Department worried that its civilian assistance program in Pakistan would be curtailed. The CIA was apprehensive that Pakistani intelligence cooperation against other militant groups would be undermined. As the media chronicled the debate, the White House feared it was losing control of Pakistan policy.

In a series of meetings with the national security team the following week, the White House reviewed long-standing options in Pakistan, ranging from outright attack to diplomacy, along with the likely ramifications of each, a process that culminated in the Sept. 29 NSC meeting.

Obama had gradually lost faith in Pakistan and its weak civilian leadership, officials said. But the core goal of their efforts, the president reminded his team, was the elimination of Pakistan-based al-Qaeda. It was important, he warned them, that “nobody takes their eye off the ball.”

Officials were instructed to calm European partners, telling them that while there would be more “edge” to the administration’s approach toward Pakistan, there would be no dramatic policy change, a European diplomat said. The Europeans, another said, were assured that no ground attack was in the offing.

Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, conveyed administration resolve to Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani at a secret meeting in Saudi Arabia. The United States wanted a relationship with Pakistan, officials said Donilon told Kayani, but it also wanted the Haqqani attacks to stop.

Pakistani officials said Donilon offered Kayani three choices: kill the Haqqani leadership, help us kill them, or persuade them to join a peaceful, democratic Afghan government.

Despite Donilon’s stark message, a senior Pakistani military official said, Kayani was satisfied that he had heard from the top. “Too many cooks have been spoiling the broth,” the military official said. “Everyone has been giving the impression they’re representing the whole administration, with different messages adding to the confusion.”

“Congress is in a visible state of hostility. There are no receptive ears on the Hill,” the official added. “There is no DOD support” and the delivery of military aid, as well as equipment Pakistan has paid for, has slowed to a trickle. “The State Department is being the pacifier, but they are helpless.”

Conflicting priorities

As the approaching end of the Afghanistan war increases the urgency and the stakes for both the United States and Pakistan, the struggle over the Haqqani network has come to illustrate conflicting priorities during a long history of alternating partnership and estrangement.

Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the most effective Afghan mujaheddin leaders against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. His tribal territory, in eastern Afghanistan, lies just across the border from North Waziristan, and Miran Shah served as his wartime headquarters. U.S. officials, supporting the anti-Soviet struggle along with Pakistan, visited him there and supplied him with arms, money and advice. Much of the assistance was funneled through bin Laden, a leading mujaheddin organizer who formed close ties with Haqqani.

When the Soviets departed in 1989, so did the United States, leaving Pakistan to protect its own interests as Afghanistan fell into civil war among competing militias. When the Taliban emerged victorious in 1996, Haqqani joined them, again with Pakistani support.

As the Taliban fled in advance of U.S.-aided northern Afghanistan forces following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Haqqani reportedly aided bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan and returned with his fighters to Miran Shah.

For Pakistan, there was little reason not to welcome Haqqani and reinforce their mutual dependence. Over the ensuing decade, as the Taliban regained strength and U.S. troop levels rose, his forces have remained a useful hedge against an uncertain outcome next door. In Pakistan’s view, the United States is a fair-weather friend and too close to Pakistan’s historical adversary, India, which is pursuing its own agenda in Afghanistan.

The Taliban umbrella organization, led by Mohammad Omar and established in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta, has carried the fight against U.S., coalition and Afghan government forces in southern Afghanistan. Haqqani, officially subservient to Omar’s leadership but mostly operating independently, until recently stayed largely in the three eastern Afghan provinces of Paktika, Paktia and Khost, the border region known to the Americans as P2K.

As Jalaluddin has aged and his health has begun to fail, leadership of the organization has been assumed by his son, Sirajuddin, aided by a network of uncles, brothers and nephews. Sirajuddin, who has spent much of his life in Pakistan and lacks his father’s ties to P2K, became known for brutal coercion and attacks there. He is seen as instrumental in expanding the group’s goals to embrace al-Qaeda’s international jihad and attacks against the United States. He is credited with orchestrating the bombing in late 2009 that killed seven CIA employees at their base in Khost and the failed 2010 car bomb in New York’s Times Square.

Before this week, only about 10 percent of more than 200 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions since 2004 had been directed toward Haqqani targets in North Waziristan, according to information compiled by the New America Foundation.

One, in 2008, reportedly killed a wife of Jalaluddin Haqqani, his sister and eight grandchildren. A February 2010 attack killed Jalaluddin’s youngest son, Mohammed, reportedly a religious student with no direct involvement in insurgent activities. Both strikes took place just outside Miran Shah.

Decision time

For years, the United States and Pakistan have sparred over the extent to which Pakistani intelligence assists the Haqqani network. In response to U.S. demands, Pakistan has said it lacks the troops for a military offensive against the group in North Waziristan.

Despite what U.S. officials say is extensive proof of the close involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and surveillance and other intelligence the United States has provided to back up that assertion, Pakistan contends it has no knowledge of the group’s location or control over its activities.

But Pakistan may now have to decide whether the time is ripe to adjust its stance to accommodate American demands.

Some Pakistani civilian officials privately hope the United States will follow through on threats to bring the powerful military and intelligence service down a few pegs, even as they lament what they see as U.S. inability to see the current bilateral upheaval as part of a long-running continuum. “Nobody has any sense of history in this administration,” said one.

The Pakistanis, who have demanded a central role in determining Afghanistan’s future, say the Americans have their own decision to make.

“Do you want our help on reconciliation, or just military operations? Make up your mind,” the Pakistani military official said. “You can’t talk to people on one side of the border and attack them on the other.”