Leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani
Washington, Sept. 1: Risking a new breach in relations with Pakistan, the Obama administration is leaning towards designating the Haqqani network, the insurgent group responsible for some of the most spectacular assaults on American bases in Afghanistan in recent years, as a terrorist organisation.
With a Congressional reporting deadline looming, secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and top military officials are said to favour placing sanctions on the network, which operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to half a dozen current and former administration officials.
A designation as a terrorist organisation would help dry up the group’s fund-raising activities in countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, press Pakistan to carry out long-promised military action against the insurgents, and sharpen the administration’s focus on devising policies and operations to weaken the group, advocates say.
But no final decision has been made. A spirited internal debate has American officials, including several at the White House, worried about the consequences of such a designation not only for relations with Pakistan, but also for peace talks with the Taliban and the fate of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier known to be held by the militants.
Perhaps the most important consideration, administration and Congressional officials say, is whether the designation would make any difference in the group’s ability to raise money or stage more assaults as the American-led Nato force draws down in Afghanistan. Several Haqqani leaders have already been designated individually as “global terrorists”, so the issue now is what would be gained by designating the entire organisation.
An administration official involved in the debate, who declined to speak on the record because of the continuing decision-making process, said: “The optics of designating look great, and the chest-thumping is an understandable expression of sentiment, but everyone has to calm down and say, ‘What does it actually do?’”
Clinton, in the Cook Islands at the start of a trip to Asia, declined to discuss the internal debate but said she would meet the Congressional deadline in September. “I’d like to underscore that we are putting steady pressure on the Haqqanis,” she said. “That is part of what our military does every day.”
A National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, would not comment on the administration’s internal deliberations, but hinted in an email yesterday at the White House’s preferences for using other means to pressure the group. “We’ve taken steps to degrade the Haqqani Taliban network’s ability to carry out attacks, including drying up their resources, targeting them with our military and intelligence resources, and pressing Pakistan to take action,” the email said.
Critics also contend that a designation by the treasury department or the UN, or under an existing executive order, could achieve the same result as adding the network to the much more prominent state department list, with far fewer consequences.
The internal debate has been so divisive that the US intelligence community has been assigned to prepare classified analyses on the possible repercussions of a designation on Pakistan. “The whole thing is absurd,” said one senior American official who has long favoured designating the group, expressing frustration with the delay.
The administration has debated the designation for more than a year, with senior military officers like Gen. John R. Allen, commander of American and Nato troops in Afghanistan, and many top counterterrorism officials arguing for it.
This year, bipartisan pressure in Congress to add the group to the terrorist list has grown.
“It is well past time to designate this network as a terrorist group,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said in July.
With virtually unanimous backing, Congress approved legislation that President Obama signed into law on August 10 giving Clinton 30 days to determine whether the Haqqani network is a terrorist group. If she says it is not, she must explain her reasoning in a report to lawmakers by September 9.