Pakistan and the United States are strong intelligence allies against Al Qaeda’s core organization — evident in the capture of numerous terrorist operatives since Washington unleashed its War on Terror shortly after the 9/11 attacks. But the relationship is not without its sore spots. The United States have pressed, and continue to press, Islamabad on a whole range of issues, from cracking down on anti-Indian militant groups to reforming the nonexistent Pakistani tax system.
The main point of contention between the two allies since at least 2008 has been the Pakistani government’s connections with the Haqqani network, the most deadly force in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains and the group that boasts the most operational experience — first as an anti-Soviet force funded by the United States and now as a resistance force against NATO troops.
Regardless of which perspective one looks through, both countries have used the same arguments to put forth their positions on the Haqqani network. From Washington’s point of view, the Pakistani military and its intelligence directorate (the ISI) coddle the Haqqanis in the hopes of using the group as a proxy force in Afghanistan. The ISI-Haqqani connection weighs heavier on the minds of Obama Administration officials these days, as Afghanistan prepares for an era without Western intervention.
The Pakistanis retort the accusation by simply denying that any relationship exists while giving Washington the cold shoulder for even suggesting that there may be a partnership.
The Obama Administration demands that the Pakistani military take action against Haqqani bases in the tribal areas. The Pakistanis respond to that demand in their usual fashion, arguing that the military’s commitments in other parts of the country make it all but impossible to launch more operations against more militant groups.
The back and forth can get quite heated, so much so that former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated unequivocally during a United States Senate hearing that the ISI not only remained an active supporter of the Haqqani network but played a key liaison role during the recent attack on the American embassy in Kabul.
After the tense rhetoric and after a few weeks pass by, American and Pakistani political and military leaders usually meet to discuss their grievances in a civilized fashion. The relationship is patched up to limp another day.
But what happens if the United States decide to throw a wrench into the entire process by debating whether to add the Haqqani network to its list of foreign terrorist organizations? Indeed, this is the question that American and Pakistani officials must be asking themselves today for an increasing number of senators and administration officials are supporting the notion of putting the Pakistani and Afghan-hosted network into the same club as Al Qaeda.
The suggestion is more than due, for the Haqqanis exhibit the same characteristics that the United States State and Treasury Departments consider integral to a successful terrorist organization.
Like Al Qaeda, Haqqani fighters target civilians in populated areas, even as they pursue American and coalition soldiers at checkpoints, military bases and patrols. High value buildings and international forums, especially in the Afghan capital of Kabul, have lately been prime real estate for Sirajuddin Haqqani and his followers — all targets that receive an enormous amount of media attention when hit. The group also works with other militant outfits in Pakistan, blending its operatives into their ranks and coordinating resources with Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban for maximum effectiveness.
There is one fundamental difference, however, between Al Qaeda and the Haqqanis. The former has been the focal point for the American counterterrorism community for the past decade. The latter has been an enigma to American policymakers during that same period. The organization espouses a dangerous fundamentalist ideology yet apparently not fundamentalist enough to receive the same amount of time, resources and attention as Al Qaeda. Only when the security situation in Afghanistan got messy enough did American firepower focus more on Haqqani activities.
Placing the Haqqani Network on the list of foreign terrorist organization will most likely not result in anything consequential for the group. Chances are that Sirajuddin, Badruddin and the rest of the Haqqani brothers do not have much in the way of assets in American banks, nor are they likely to visit the United States, Australia, or Switzerland anytime soon.
But what may change is Pakistan’s attitude toward their current proxies, who have now been branded by the United States government as international terrorists no better than Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Anwar al-Awlaki. The label will most likely fail to completely obstruct the flow of ISI-Haqqani cooperation but it would at least set the pretext for more aggressive American military action (i.e. more drone strikes) along the Afghan-Pakistani border should the Pakistani military prove unable or unwilling too distance themselves from the group.