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Will Pakistan ever go after the Haqqani Network?

FBI via Reuters

FBI wanted poster for Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the so-called Haqqani Network on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

By Amna Nawaz, NBC News producer, Islamabad

Over the last two weeks, increased U.S. pressure on Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network has laid bare the complicated relationship that Islamabad maintains with this particular militant group – a link some Pakistani officials argue is necessary for their national interests. 

The U.S. request that Pakistan crack down on the Haqqanis – believed to be operating from the tribal agency of North Waziristan and attacking U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan – has long been understood to be a fundamental point of disagreement in private discussions. 

In June 2011, following the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad and subsequent flurry of high-level meetings between the two stated allies, press speculation was rampant that a Pakistan military operation in North Waziristan was imminent. Pakistan’s army commander in the region, Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, denied that, maintaining that Pakistan “will undertake operations when we want to do it, when it is militarily and otherwise in the national interest to undertake such operations.” 

To this day, North Waziristan remains the only one of the seven tribal agencies in which the Pakistan military has yet to carry out any operation against Islamic militants. But the Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul pushed the Haqqani issue back to the headlines, and forced the debate out into the public.

NBC News' Richard Engel joins Chris Jansing to discuss the attack in Kabul on the U.S. Embassy. American and Afghan officials blamed a Taliban group, the Haqqani network, for the attack.

State Department officials said the attack “changed the nature of the meeting” between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar when the two met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly this month. The Haqqanis, they said, were the first and last issue discussed. 

Just days after the attack, in an interview with Radio Pakistan, U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter claimed the U.S. had “evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistan government,” but did not share specifics.  

Less than one week later, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and long characterized by Pakistani officials as “a friend of Pakistan,” dealt what many here saw as the harshest blow, when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani network acts as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, known as the ISI. 

Mullen’s comments sparked a firestorm in Pakistan. The country’s powerful Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, denied the accusations as “unfortunate” and “not based on facts,” and Pakistani politicians struck back, accusing the U.S. of making Pakistan a scapegoat for its failures in Afghanistan. 

Though Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, denied that the spy agency facilitated or supported the Haqqani network, he did acknowledge his country’s contact with the group, saying, “Any intelligence agency would like to maintain contact with whatever opposition group, whatever terrorist organization … for some positive outcome.” 

Privately, Pakistani military and intelligence officials tell NBC News that means protecting their country’s national interests for stability in the region and good relations across the western border. While they do not rule out targeted military operations in North Waziristan to clear our elements deemed a threat to the state, specific action targeting the Haqqani network, they say, is not necessarily a mission they share with the U.S. 

“We have strategic convergence with the Americans on two points -- a stable, safe Afghanistan and the eradication of al-Qaida in the region,” said one Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s it.” 

The Haqqanis, officials here say, do not pose an immediate internal threat, and attacking them would only force the group to turn their sights on the Pakistani state. 

“Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot?” said the intelligence official. “After 2014 (and the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan), we’ll be left right where we were after the Afghan jihad.” 

Pakistani officials base that approach on the widely held belief that the Haqqanis are simply too powerful a group for any future government in Kabul to ignore. But besides wanting to maintain a good relationship with forces in power in Afghanistan, they are also reluctant to lose one of their strongest links to the myriad militant groups operating in North Waziristan. 

The Haqqanis first established themselves as key players in the region during the war against the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, when the strength of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s relationships at a geographically strategic point allowed the group to operate as a nexus player. Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin, today operates on the strength of his father’s credibility as operational commander of the group, playing the same influential role, tying together diverse actors in the region. 

According to a recent report by The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, “For the past three decades, the Haqqani network has functioned as an enabler for other groups and as the fountainhead of local, regional and global militancy.” 

In an area largely abandoned by the Pakistani state, maintaining a link with the Haqqanis provides Pakistan’s agencies a conduit to groups that actually do carry out attacks within their own borders, like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). 

The Haqqani network, according to the CTC, has played the role of “local conflict mediator over multiple decades,” and now functions as “a central diplomatic interface between the TTP and the Pakistani state when important issues need to be discussed.” 

Former Ambassador Ayaz Wazir, who established Pakistan’s consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif during Taliban rule in Afghanistan and has met with the Haqqanis, says that bringing the group into the reconciliation process is the only way forward. 

“I don’t know why this big difference between the Taliban and the Haqqani network is being drawn,” said Wazir. “Jalaluddin Haqqani was part of the Taliban right from Day One, I would say. Haqqani and Taliban are one and the same thing.” 

In an interview with Reuters last week, Sirajuddin Haqqani echoed that sentiment, pledging allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leadership, and saying he “would support whatever solution” they suggested “for the future of Afghanistan.” 

U.S. officials, however, argue that the group is separate and distinct, and remains among the most dangerous threats to both the U.S. and Pakistan. A series of high-level meetings have been held in recent days in an attempt to defuse tensions and ensure cooperation on this issue between the two countries. 

In an interview Wednesday night with an English-language Pakistani news channel, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman, hailed those meetings as a sign of strength and resilience in the relationship, but reiterated the U.S. request for “joint action” against the Haqqani network.  

“It’s very, very important that the government of Pakistan and the government of the United States and the people of the two countries recognize that terrorism – and that includes the Haqqani Network – is a threat to both of us,” said Grossman. “The question is not whether we will work together, but how we’ll work together to try to deal with these issues.” 

 Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed reporting from Peshawar, and Fakhar Rehman, from Islamabad.