Just a month after accusing Pakistan’s spy agency of secretly supporting the Haqqani terrorist network, which has mounted attacks on Americans, the Obama administration is now relying on the same intelligence service to help organize and kick-start reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.
The revamped approach, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called “Fight, Talk, Build” during a high-level United States delegation’s visit to Kabul and Islamabad this month, combines continued American air and ground strikes against the Haqqani network and the Taliban with an insistence that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency get them to the negotiating table.
But some elements of the ISI see little advantage in forcing those negotiations, because they see the insurgents as perhaps their best bet for maintaining influence in Afghanistan as the United States reduces its presence there.
The strategy is emerging amid an increase in the pace of attacks against Americans in Kabul, including a suicide attack on Saturday that killed as many as 10 Americans and in which the Haqqanis are suspected.
It is the latest effort at brokering a deal with militants before the last of 33,000 American “surge” troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan by September, and comes as early hopes in the White House about having the outlines of a deal in time for a multinational conference Dec. 5 in Bonn, Germany, have been all but abandoned.
But even inside the Obama administration, the new initiative has been met with deep skepticism, in part because the Pakistani government has developed its own strategy, one at odds with Mrs. Clinton’s on several key points. One senior American official summarized the Pakistani position as “Cease-fire, Talk, Wait for the Americans to Leave.”
In short, the United States is in the position of having to rely heavily on the ISI to help broker a deal with the same group of militants that leaders in Washington say the spy agency is financing and supporting.
“The Pakistanis see the contradictions in the American approach,” said Shamila N. Chaudhary, a former top Obama White House aide on Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The big question for the administration is, What can the Pakistanis actually deliver? Pakistan is holding its cards very closely.”
On Sunday, United States intelligence officials deepened an investigation into what role, if any, the Haqqani network played in the bombing in Kabul on Saturday.
Several current and former American officials say the United States has tried this bomb-them-to-the-bargaining-table approach before. In the 1990s, it helped drive Serbian leaders to peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, but it has resulted in little so far with the Afghan Taliban.
“I don’t think anyone expects Secretary Clinton’s visit to produce reconciliation,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer and the author of “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.” Mr. Riedel, who advocates a policy of containment in Pakistan, added, “The deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan relations is likely to continue.”
Senior Pakistani officials say they are confused by a lack of clarity in the administration’s long-term goals in Afghanistan, and are working with American officials to hammer out specific plans after Mrs. Clinton’s visit. As an incentive, the United States has offered Pakistan a prominent role in reconciliation talks. But American officials have warned that they will take unilateral action if negotiations fail.
Several administration officials said they considered Mrs. Clinton’s trip to Kabul and Islamabad, from Oct. 19 to 21, a success largely because it had happened at all.
Talks had been frozen
In the months after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, talks were frozen, American intelligence officers were denied visas, and the administration accused the ISI of turning a blind eye to attacks on Americans launched from the country’s tribal areas.
When Adm. Mike Mullen, just days before his retirement last month as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that the Haqqani network was “a veritable arm” of the Pakistani spy service, President Obama and his aides were outraged, administration officials said — not because they thought Admiral Mullen was wrong, but because his remarks further inflamed the Pakistanis.
Mrs. Clinton’s trip was intended to both re-establish ties and reiterate a strong message. She warned Pakistan that the United States would act on its own if necessary to attack extremist groups that use the country as a haven while they kill Americans.
To emphasize that point, a flurry of C.I.A. drone strikes launched on Oct. 13-14 from Afghanistan killed the third-ranking leader of the Haqqani network, near Miram Shah in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s tribal area.
Two other missile volleys killed two senior operatives of Al Qaeda involved in overseas planning, American officials said. On Thursday, American missile strikes killed five members of a faction of the Pakistani Taliban.
But Mrs. Clinton, joined by David H. Petraeus, the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not use her meeting to insist, as she and other officials had in the past, that the Pakistan military mount an offensive to root out the Haqqanis and other militants that operate from sanctuaries in North Waziristan.
Instead, the administration says, it is pressing the Pakistanis to provide intelligence on the Haqqanis, arrest some of the group’s operatives and reduce ties to the terrorist group — all steps well short of military action.
In its place, an emerging American strategy aims to attack the Haqqanis on both sides of the border. An eight-day NATO offensive this month involving 11,000 allied troops and 25,000 Afghan security forces in seven provinces in eastern Afghanistan killed or captured more than 200 Haqqani fighters and commanders, allied officials said; the pressure on the Pakistani side is being generated almost entirely by the drone strikes.
“That’s going to really deter their ability to operate probably for some time, maybe into the winter period,” Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the second-ranking allied commander in Afghanistan, said Thursday.
Mrs. Clinton also used her meeting, according to officials familiar with it, to reassure the Pakistanis that they would play a central role in any reconciliation talks. “We’re at the point where Pakistanis have told us they’re going to squeeze the Haqqani network,” a senior administration official said. “They’re satisfied they’ve got a way forward on reconciliation. They’ve got a role to play.”
That means rekindling talks with the Haqqanis that started in late August. That first exploratory meeting was held secretly in the United Arab Emirates between a midlevel American diplomat and Ibrahim Haqqani, a brother of the tribal network’s patriarch. Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, brokered the meeting. American and Pakistan officials say little resulted from the session, which came just two weeks before a 20-hour attack on the United States Embassy in Kabul.
On Capitol Hill last week, some lawmakers expressed skepticism about the administration’s approach to the Haqqani network.
“So which is it, Madam Secretary? Crack down or negotiate with the Haqqani network, or a little bit of both?” asked Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“It’s both,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We want to fight, talk and build all at the same time. Part of the reason for that is to test whether these organizations have any willingness to negotiate in good faith.”
This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.