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Obama administration may designate the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization

With a Congressional reporting deadline looming, the Obama administration appears ready to designate the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization, risking a new breach in relations with Pakistan.
/ Source: The New York Times

Risking a new breach in relations with Pakistan, the Obama administration is leaning toward 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 organization.

With a Congressional reporting deadline looming, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and top military officials are said to favor 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 organization 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 Sgt. 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 organization.

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?’ ”

Mrs. 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 e-mail on Friday 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 e-mail said.

Critics also contend that a designation by the Treasury Department or the United Nations, 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 United States 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 favored designating the group, expressing frustration with the delay.

The administration has debated the designation for nearly two years, 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 Aug. 10 giving Mrs. 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 Sept. 9.

On one level, the decision seems clear-cut. Since 2008, Haqqani suicide attackers in Afghanistan have struck the Indian Embassy, hotels and restaurants and the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the American Embassy.

A recent report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point described how the Haqqani network had evolved into a “sophisticated, diverse and transnational crime network.”

In a paper for the Heritage Foundation, Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the foundation and a former C.I.A. analyst on South Asia, said, “The U.S. should stand by its counterterrorism principles and identify this deadly terrorist organization for what it is.”

American officials confirmed this week that a senior member of the Haqqani family leadership, Badruddin Haqqani, the network’s operational commander, was killed last week in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Opponents cite several reasons that designating the Haqqani network a terrorist organization could further complicate relations between the United States and Pakistan, just as relations are getting back on track after months of grueling negotiations that finally reopened NATO supply routes through Pakistan.

One reason, officials said, is that such a move would seem to bring Pakistan a step closer to being designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. American officials say the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate is covertly aiding the insurgents. Pakistani officials have said that the agency maintains regular contact with the Haqqanis, but deny that it provides operational support. They contend that the Obama administration is trying to deflect attention from its own failings in Afghanistan.

In his meetings at the Central Intelligence Agency in early August, Pakistan’s new spy chief, Lt. Gen. Zahir ul-Islam, told the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, that his country would not protest the designation, if it was given. Two other Pakistani officials said this week that the decision was “an internal American issue.” American analysts believe Pakistan would be reluctant to publicly protest the designation because to do so would substantiate American beliefs that Pakistan supports the Haqqanis.

Critics also voice concern that designating the Haqqani network could undermine peace talks with the Taliban and complicate efforts to win the release of Sergeant Bergdahl.

The main American effort to open negotiations with the Taliban remains centered on the talks in Qatar, where Taliban representatives are supposed to be opening an office. But those talks were suspended by the insurgents in March, largely over a delayed prisoner swap for Sergeant Bergdahl, held by the Haqqani network since 2009. The United States would have released five insurgents from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to win his release.

“A designation makes negotiating with the Taliban harder, and would add another layer of things to do to build confidence in order to restart negotiations,” said Shamila N. Chaudhary, a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group who was the director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the National Security Council.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting.

This story, titled "" originally appeared in The New York Times.