By CNN's Tim Lister
The United States appears to be shifting tactics as it tries to chart a course toward a stable and secure Afghanistan, according to diplomats and analysts. It might best be described as the squeeze – a more subtle approach to counteracting the threat of groups like the Haqqani Network, while at the same time suggesting the possibility of dialogue.
The latest hint of such a shift came Wednesday, when the U.S. State Department suggested it could talk with the Haqqanis – even if the group were designated a terrorist organization.
“While we can’t comment directly on a situation that is hypothetical, in general, we would be able to talk with representatives of a Foreign Terrorist Organization, should we deem it appropriate," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed last week there had been a meeting between a U.S. diplomat and Ibrahim Haqqani (the brother of the organization’s veteran leader) in August, as well as contacts with the Afghan Taliban, to "test whether these organizations have any willingness to negotiate in good faith."
"There's evidence going both ways,” she said – and pointed to the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, thought to have been orchestrated by the Haqqanis.
Washington has concluded that the Pakistani government will never launch an outright offensive against groups like the Haqqanis in North Waziristan, and is instead opting for less ambitious forms of pressure against the group.
Clinton has dubbed the new approach “Fight, Talk, Build.” Most of the fighting will be done on the Afghan side of the border, where there have been several major operations recently against Haqqani operatives. At the same time, the U.S. is leaning on Pakistan at least to restrict the Haqqanis’ freedom of movement by tightening border controls. And it is clearly demanding results within weeks rather than months.
“We are moving toward a very international effort to squeeze the Haqqanis with the funding and other aspects of the operations,” Clinton said last month.
Senator Tom Udall (D-Colo) said Wednesday on his return from a visit to the region that the next few weeks would be critical to the new approach.
“It does feel at times like Pakistan is playing the role of both fireman and arsonist in Afghanistan. We must hold Pakistan's feet to the fire about the safe havens it’s giving to the Haqqani network and other Taliban elements,” Senator Udall said.
“If there are attacks on U.S. or Afghanistan forces from Pakistan – significant attacks – then all bets are off,” he added.
Udall also detailed the sort of support the U.S. now expected to see – cutting off access to funding, reduce the group’s freedom of movement, and share more intelligence about the Haqqanis. In recent weeks, the group’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has several times contacted western news media via phone from Pakistani territory and is thought to move freely between North Waziristan and the neighboring province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services committee who visited the region with Udall, said he anticipated targeted efforts to disrupt Haqqani couriers and better efforts to block cross-border networks supplying improvised explosive devices.
“There has to be real steps going forward to help us not only squeeze the Haqqani network, but also to go after other elements within Pakistan that are directly engaged in actives in Afghanistan,” Sen. Reed said. Like Sen. Udall, he said the next few weeks would demonstrate whether the strained U.S. relationship with Pakistan could be repaired.
The Haqqani Network is a pivotal group in the Afghan conflict: an ally of the Taliban with thirty years of combat experience, the ability to launch sophisticated attacks in Kabul and long-standing contacts with members of Pakistan’s military intelligence service. It is also a large clan-based group with family connections throughout Pakistan and as far away as the Gulf.
A detailed analysis of the group carried out by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point this year concluded: “The Haqqani network has been more important to the development and sustainment of al Qaeda and the global jihad than any other single actor or group.”
Haqqani commanders are still being targeted aggressively by U.S. forces in south and eastern Afghanistan. Earlier this week, the Obama administration added a Haqqani network commander to the list of terrorists prohibited from engaging in the U.S. financial system, some weeks after he’d been captured.
The designation of Mali Khan “will strengthen the ability to target the finances of the Haqqani network, in addition to helping other U.S. agencies enforce their own actions against the group,” the State department said.
Pakistani officials see the group as a proxy for projecting influence in Afghanistan, especially against the interests of arch-enemy India. For that reason, a frontal attack on the Haqqani’s safe-havens in North Waziristan was always unlikely.
If some modus vivendi can be achieved that blunts the effectiveness of the Haqqanis and other groups using Pakistan as a base, there may be a window of opportunity for dialogue. The United States has consistently said that peace in Afghanistan ultimately demands a political settlement. It is looking to allies such as Turkey to bring together the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan – ahead of the critical conference in Germany in December that will mark the tenth anniversary of the Taliban’s overthrow as the government of Afghanistan.