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Will the US ever declare Haqqanis a terrorist group?

Last updated on: July 12, 2012 23:43 IST

Is the United States actually serious to proceed against the Haqqanis this time or is it yet another ploy on the part of the Obama administration to pressurise one of the most influential power players in Afghanistan to join hands with the international community to hold future negotiations with the Taliban? Amir Mir tries to find out.

A proposed legislation in the American Senate, seeking to designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist organisation has sparked off an intense debate in the decision-making circles of Islamabad.

Two key US Senators have introduced legislation in the Senate on July 11, seeking to designate the Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist group. Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and vice chairman of the committee Senator Saxby Chambliss have argued that the Pakistan-based group fits the criteria outlined for the Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

They urged upon the US State Department at a joint press conference to designate the Haqqani Network as an FTO as soon as possible. The move comes a day after the House of Representatives postponed a vote on legislation that would have required the Obama administration to explain to Congress why it was reluctant to place the Haqqanis on the foreign terrorist organisation list.

Last month, the chairmen of the US House Intelligence, Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees also introduced legislation calling on the administration to place the Haqqani network on the FTO list. The proposed designation would make it unlawful for Americans to provide material support or resources to the group. "You cannot negotiate with terrorists, and in my view that's exactly what the Haqqani Network is. I have urged the State Department to designate Haqqani as an FTO for more than two years," said Senator Feinstein, adding that the deadly militant network had conducted numerous attacks against American military personnel.

The fresh move by US Senators comes amidst some recent international media reports that the Haqqani Network has increased its presence in Afghanistan's north, through its partnership with the Al Qaeda affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Haqqanis have also increased their operational reach and jehadi credentials over the past several years toward the historical strongholds of the Quetta Shura in southern Afghanistan and the areas surrounding Kabul. Keeping in view these reports, the US security establishment believes that the Haqqani Network will be a dominant force inside of Afghanistan indefinitely and that the United States would fail to achieve its stated objective of preventing the return of Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups to Afghanistan.

Before the recent move by the American Senators, a bipartisan group of powerful US lawmakers had asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2012 to immediately designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network as a foreign terrorist organisation. The American lawmakers included Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss and US House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger.

They pointed out that it was clear that the Haqqani Network, which was based in Pakistan's North Waziristan, continues to launch sensational and indiscriminate attacks against US interests in Afghanistan, and posed a continuing threat to innocent men, women and children in the region.

They US lawmakers further stated in their letter to Hillary Clinton that there is little question that the Haqqani network meets the criteria for designation as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) -- it engages in terrorist activity that threatens the security of US citizens or the national security of the US. On November 1, 2011, they said, the US State Department wrote that it was engaged in the "final formal review" on whether to designate the group as an FTO. "Six months have now passed, and the Haqqanis have continued to attack US troops and the US Embassy in Kabul during that period", the US lawmakers had added.

However, despite being blamed for at least half-a-dozen terrorist attacks on the Western military and diplomatic installations in recent months in and around Kabul, the deadly Haqqani Network continues to be branded (by the US) as an "insurgent group" rather than being officially designated as a "foreign terrorist organisation".

Well-informed officials in the Pakistani security establishment say this is mainly because Washington simply can't afford excluding from peace talks a powerful Afghan militant group which has a key role in determining the shape of Afghanistan that American troops will leave behind.

Therefore, despite a blunt declaration by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen early this year that the Haqqani Network was a veritable arm of the Inter Services Intelligence which exports violent extremism to Afghanistan", the US has not yet tagged Haqqanis a terrorist organisation.

In contrast to the American perception of the Haqqanis, the Pakistani security establishment considers the group a strategic asset. Their relationship is several decades old and is mutually beneficial.

Unlike the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Hakeemullah Mehsud, the Haqqanis have no grouse against Islamabad; their goal, instead, is to have a stake in the dispensation of Kabul once the Americans leave.

Considering that 15,000 fighters are said to be under the control of the Haqqani Network, a necessary factor for forging a peace settlement in Afghanistan is either their weakening or cooperation.

A weakened Haqqani Network would mean less leverage for Pakistan to influence events in the post-withdrawal Kabul.

With India on the east, Pakistan does not want a hostile regime in the west. This is why Pakistani security establishment is not ready to carry out a military offensive against the Haqqani Network led by Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Interestingly, Sirajuddin Haqqani has repeatedly pledged loyalty to the ameer of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, saying, "he is our leader and we totally obey him."

But despite Sirajuddin's allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, most analysts believe it is his network which will eventually determine the kind of Afghanistan the Americans leave behind. Probably that's why the US has not yet declared the Haqqani network a foreign terrorist organisation, as was the case with the Afghan Taliban.

The Islamic Movement of Taliban or "Tahrik-e-Islami'a Taliban" had been tagged a "Foreign Terrorist Organisation" under the US Treasury Department's Executive Order No. 13224 way back on September 23, 2001.

However, the current status of the Haqqani network as an "insurgent group" allows the White House to hold talks without breaking US criminal law -- until and unless, like the Afghan Taliban, it is declared a terrorist outfit.

Amir Mir in Islamabad