When is a terrorist not a terrorist? America's Haqqani conundrum.
Congress is pushing the State Department to list the Haqqani network in Pakistan as a terrorist organization. Military officials have said Haqqani fighters are America's most formidable foe in Afghanistan, but the Haqqanis could also be key to any reconciliation efforts.
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A series of US executive orders since 2008 targeting the group’s top leaders has not dissuaded the Haqqanis from attacking US interests in the region. Last week Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited evidence that the Haqqani network – which he said has close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency – was behind the attack on the US embassy in Kabul earlier this month.
Yet even though it appears the State Department, under intense pressure from Congress, is moving closer to adding the group to the US terrorist list, there are also several key reasons the US is weighing the designation carefully.
- Designating the Haqqani network would deal another blow to US-Pakistan cooperation, and could – given accusations such as Mullen’s – encourage pressure to add Pakistan to the US list of state sponsors of terror.
- Making the designation would suggest to some Afghans and Pakistanis that the US is throwing in the towel on reconciliation efforts as a critical component of the strategy to wind down the Afghanistan war.
- Listing the Haqqanis might not offer the benefits, in terms of dealing any financial blow to the group, to outweigh the costs it could entail.
“Certainly the biggest concern is that designating the Haqqani network would put a lot of pressure on Washington to go a step further and designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror,” says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars in Washington. “That would effectively spell the end of US-Pakistan relations as we have known them.”
The list of potential ramifications suggests why the State Department will say only that it continues to evaluate the pros and cons of designating the Haqqani group – an evaluation that has been in the works for years.
“We are continuing to review whether to designate the entire [Haqqani] organization,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday.
But she suggested that concerns for US-Pakistan relations were part of the equation. The US has been “absolutely clear” in extensive high-level conversations with the Pakistanis “that the Haqqani network is job one, that we want to do it together, and that’s the conversation that we’re having now,” she said.
US-Pakistan relations have been on a bumpy but overall downward trajectory for years, with ties hitting another chute after the US raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden. But US interests in maintaining relations with Pakistan continue to outweigh the reasons for cutting them off, many regional analysts say.
“Certainly Pakistan has been a duplicitous ally, there’s no question about that,” says Malou Innocent, a South Asia expert at the Cato Institute in Washington. “But while that may be a reason to be less dependent on Pakistan, the reality of the moment is that we are tremendously dependent on them,” she adds, “so that reality influences the actions we take.”