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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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Pakistan continues to be important to US antiterror efforts because it has been the center of Al Qaeda command and control. Pakistan also secretly allows US drone attacks against militants on Pakistani soil – a tactic that has been increasingly successful. Moreover, the US wants to maintain the stability of the secular government, given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is infested with Islamic radicals.

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Mr. Kugelman of the Wilson Center says he expects the State Department will end up designating the Haqqani network – but he says the US should resist the pressure to “go the next step and designate Pakistan” as a state sponsor of terror.

“The US does not have compelling national interests for maintaining relations with the four countries on that list,” he says, referring to Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. “But the US has tremendous interests in maintaining relations with Pakistan.”

Another reason the US has gone slow on designating the Haqqanis is the impact it could have on reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan.

“The Haqqani network is just one of many influential factions the administration must deal with if they are to reach any kind of a political settlement in Afghanistan,” Ms. Innocent says. Negotiations could be doomed if the US puts one of the “influential groups” off limits, she says.

“And once they are designated, it’s more difficult to argue why anyone should negotiate with a group you have said is a terrorist organization,” she says.

But others say the US should forget the idea that the Pakistani group could be drawn into a political settlement. “I would argue the Haqqani Network never had any interest in joining any talks on reconciliation in Afghanistan,” Kugelman says.

Several influential senators have issued statements in recent days that in effect call on the State Department to move beyond a longstanding “review” of the Haqqani network and place it on the terrorist list. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, made public a letter she sent to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton following Mullen’s Senate testimony.

“I repeat my request that the Haqqani network should be listed” as a foreign terrorist organization,” Senator Feinstein wrote, “and ask that you respond in writing.” Feinstein made the same request in a letter to Secretary Clinton in May 2010.

In a Senate hearing last week, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan said he had “repeatedly written to Secretary Clinton” demanding the designation, a step he called “long overdue.”

But Cato’s Innocent notes that even US military officials have said the Afghanistan war cannot be won military, and will require a political solution. “If that’s the case, then we have to look at engaging all the influential factions,” she says, adding, “even if they are odious.”

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