The dreaded Haqqani network has emerged as the 'most ominous threat' to the already fragile US-Pakistan ties as American officials believe the terror group has an 'ongoing relationship' with the ISI and the two were doing more than just talking, a media report has said.
A senior Obama administration official said that the US thinks the Haqqani network has an "ongoing relationship with the Pakistani spy agency ISI, according to the New York Times.
The US and other Western officials, citing intelligence reports, say the ISI and Haqqanis 'do more than just talk'.
Pakistani intelligence allows Haqqani operatives to run legitimate businesses in Pakistan, facilitates their travel to Persian Gulf states and has continued to donate money, the NYT said. Senior Haqqani figures even own houses in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, where their relatives live unmolested.
At a time when the US readies to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, recent terror attacks like the June 1 assault on Camp Salerno near the border with Pakistan orchestrated by the
Haqqani have "cemented the group's standing as the most ominous threat to the fragile American-Pakistani relationship," officials from both countries say.
The paper said a "new boldness from the Haqqanis that aims at mass American casualties, combined with simmering political tension, has reduced the room for ambiguity between the two countries."
A commonly held view inside the Obama administration is that the US is "one major attack" away from "unilateral action against Pakistan -- diplomatically or perhaps even militarily," according to a senior official.
"If 50 US troops were blown to smithereens by the Haqqanis or they penetrated the US Embassy in Kabul and killed several diplomats -- that would be the game changer," he said.
The two countries are just beginning to mend relations after months of gruelling negotiations that reopened NATO supply routes through Pakistan.
Pakistan's ISI chief Lt Gen Zahir ul-Islam is scheduled to arrive in Washington for talks with the CIA. "But the relationship still has a tinderbox quality, beset by differences over CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt, the Afghan war and, most contentiously, the Haqqani network.
"The arguments are well worn: American officials say the Pakistani military's ISI spy agency is covertly aiding the insurgents; Pakistani officials deny the accusation and contend the Obama administration is deflecting attention from its own failings in Afghanistan," the NYT added.
It said while the ISI admits that it maintains regular contact with the Haqqanis, the agency denies providing operational support. "Doesn't the CIA have contacts with the people it is fighting?" said a senior ISI official.
"In intelligence work, you need to ingress to find out what the other side is doing."
Days after the Salerno attack, White House officials met to weigh their options in the event the Haqqanis are able to carry out a major success attack against American troops.
The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, including withdrawing the Islamabad ambassador, intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan's tribal belt as well as American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the area.
"We looked at the A to Z of how to get the Pakistanis' attention," an official said in the report.
Obama administration officials are however also concerned that most options run the risk of setting off a wider conflict with nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"It came down to the fact that there wasn't much we could do," the official said.
The NYT report said at the heart of the conundrum for the US is Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and its new chief General Islam, who is "a largely unknown quantity in Washington."
"The Haqqani network is engaged in a reign of terror," said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "Now is the time for action, not simply paperwork and talk."
The Haqqanis' have been able to build a formidable reputation through a series of "swarm" attacks that have struck at American efforts to ensure a smooth and public transition of power to President Hamid Karzai by the end of 2014.
Since 2008, Haqqani suicide attackers have struck the Indian Embassy, five-star hotels, restaurants and the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the American Embassy.
"Their success is rooted in the sanctuary enjoyed by Haqqani leadership in North Waziristan, where, at the very least, they are unmolested by the Pakistani military," the report added.
Members of the Haqqani network are able to live freely in Pakistani cities.
A Western diplomat said he had seen credible reports that the group's leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, dined openly in a city centre restaurant this year.
Officials, however, say such links do not amount to ISI support for attacks on Americans but point to something more subtle -- "a containment policy that is devised to prevent Haqqani violence inside Pakistan, all the while providing a strategic card to help influence the future of Afghanistan."
The report said one difficulty in determining the truth about Haqqani-ISI ties is the fragmentary nature of Western intelligence: a mosaic of satellite images, intercepted phone calls and human intelligence.
Several officials said, the ISI may be serving the Haqqani agenda more than the other way around.
"Their interests are not always aligned," said a US intelligence official who tracks the Haqqanis closely.
The United States has long pressured Pakistan to attack the Haqqanis in North Waziristan, but the military says its forces are overstretched.
"It's not that we are unwilling to go against them; we just don't have the resources," the ISI official said.