NEW YORK - Ahead of Pakistan’s ISI chief visit to Washington, a leading US newspaper on Tuesday focused on what it called “new boldness from the Haqqani (network) that aims at mass American casualties”, saying it posed the “most ominous threat” to Islamabad-Washington ties.
“But the relationship still has a tinderbox quality, as by differences over CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the Afghan war and, most contentiously, the Haqqani network,” The New York Times said in a dispatch from Islamabad.
The arguments are well worn: American officials say the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency is covertly aiding the insurgents; Pakistani officials deny the accusation and contend the Obama administration is deflecting attention from its own failings in Afghanistan.
“But the new boldness from the Haqqanis that aims at American casualties, combined with simmering political tension, has reduced the room for ambiguity between the two countries.”
Inside the administration, one unnamed American official was quoted as saying that it is a commonly held view that the US is “one major attack” away from unilateral action against Pakistan — diplomatically or perhaps even militarily.
American officials recently considered what that could mean. Days after the recent attack in Afghanistan’s border village of Salerno, the White House held a series of meetings to weigh its options in the event of a major success by the Haqqanis against American troops.
The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, the Times said citing a senior official who was briefed on the deliberations — everything from withdrawing the Islamabad Ambassador, to a flurry of intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt, to American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the same area.
But officials concluded that most options ran the risk of setting off a wider conflict with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military, the newspaper said. “It came down to the fact that there wasn’t much we could do,” the official said. Other senior officials confirmed the broad details of his account; many noted that most contingency plans are never transformed into actions.
At the heart of the conundrum is the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, and its new chief, General Islam, the Times said.
“He is a largely unknown in Washington, and much of this week’s trip is likely to focus on relationship building with American officials, including the director of the CIA, David H. Petraeus,” the paper added.
But the tone has already been set by Congress: in the past month, both the House and the Senate have passed bills that urge Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to designate the Haqqani network a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’.” the dispatch said.
“The Haqqani network is engaged in a reign of terror,” said Congressman Mike Rogers, a Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Now is the time for action, not simply paperwork and talk.”
The Haqqanis’ formidable reputation comes from a series of “swarm” attacks that have struck at American efforts to ensure a smooth and public transition of power to President Hamid Karzai by the end of 2014, the Times said.
Since 2008, Haqqani suicide attackers have struck the Indian Embassy, five-star hotels and restaurants and, last September, the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the American Embassy.
“Yet their success is rooted in the sanctuary enjoyed by Haqqani leadership in North Waziristan, where, at the very least, they are not checked by the Pakistani military,” the Times said.
That relationship stretches to the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s, when the ISI sent CIA money and weapons to Haqqani fighters. The Pakistani agency continued to send funds during the 1990s, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
“Today, the ISI admits that it maintains regular contact with the Haqqanis, but denies providing operational support,” the report claims. “Doesn’t the CIA have contacts with the people it is fighting?” said a senior ISI official.
American and other Western officials, citing intelligence reports, say the ISI and the Haqqanis do more than just talk. Pakistani intelligence allows Haqqani operatives to run legitimate businesses in Pakistan, facilitates their travel to Persian Gulf states, and has continued to donate money. Senior Haqqani figures own houses in the capital, Islamabad, where their relatives live.
“We think the Haqqani network has an ongoing relationship with the ISI,” a senior Obama administration official was quoted as saying. “But I am not convinced there is a command-and-control relationship between the ISI and those attacks.”
“In many ways, the Haqqanis are their own masters. Although they pledge allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, they enjoy financial autonomy thanks to a tribal empire based on extortion, kidnapping and smuggling. They draw support from other groups sheltering in Waziristan, including al Qaeda,” it said.
In that sense, several officials, according to the Times, said, the ISI may be serving the Haqqani agenda more than the other way around.
“Their interests are not always aligned,” said an American intelligence official who tracks the Haqqanis closely.
The United States has long pressured Pakistan to attack the Haqqanis in North Waziristan, but the military says its forces are overstretched. “It’s not that we are unwilling to go against them; we just don’t have the resources,” the ISI official said.