Hillary Clinton is keeping the world guessing, as she prepares to lay down a critical marker on what the US really thinks of its chances of taming the Taliban and its satellite militias before the planned withdrawal of Coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The US Secretary of State is required to report to Congress by tomorrow whether Washington will formally designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation.
With the exception of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Haqqani network is one of the most brutal to confront the US and its allies and is, in the judgment of The Washington Post, more dangerous than any of the 50-odd organisations on the US blacklist.
That the Haqqani network has remained off the list in more than a decade since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan is proof of the uncertain gains in a mismanaged and relentless conflict – one in which there are only two more solid rounds of fighting in which US military force might act to persuade the key players to consider an alternative to never-ending war.
Quite apart from what could unfold in Afghanistan, Clinton’s decision will serve also to shape Washington’s uneasy relationship with a faltering government in Pakistan, which has long used terrorist and militia proxies to advance obsessive policy objectives – particularly in relation to India.
The debate in Washington is seen as a contest between the Pentagon’s belief in the persuasive force of military power and the State Department’s belief in negotiation and diplomacy as instruments to end war. Officials at the White House have tended to side with Clinton’s State Department, but late yesterday The New York Times quoted unnamed administration officials saying the Haqqani network was to be blacklisted.
The timing of Clinton’s decision is awkward because the northern autumn marks the end of this year’s so-called fighting season – winter makes it difficult for the Taliban to move men and supplies.
But the flipside of that is that winter is when there might be a shift towards a negotiated end to war, and branding the Haqqani network as terrorists would rob Washington of the opportunity to confer with the movement.
It might also make the Taliban less willing to talk, especially if there are only two more summers of combat before the local players will have to resolve the conflict on their own terms.
Dubbed the ”Sopranos of the Afghanistan war” by The New York Times, the Haqqani family has dominated war and brief periods of peace in three eastern provinces of Afghanistan for decades.
They aligned themselves with the CIA in the 1980s war against the Soviet Union and with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the conflict that followed September 11, 2001. But their network acts independently of the Taliban central leadership, which operates from the Pakistani border city of Quetta.
When it is not executing terrorist strikes causing mass death and injury at embassies, military bases and hotels frequented by westerners in Afghanistan, the family reputedly raises funds through kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, trucking, real estate, construction, car-dealerships and timber. It runs its own Talibanesque statelet in the Pakistani border town of Miram Shah, which is always watched but rarely interfered with by Pakistani authorities.
The network raises substantial funds in the Persian Gulf principalities, a spigot that could be threatened by US sanctions on wealthy individuals who contribute or financial institutions that process their offerings.
In the face of repeated pleading by the Pentagon for the Pakistani military to challenge the Haqqanis, Islamabad insists it is too stretched and does not have the capacity to engage the network. And although the CIA’s drone attacks have had mixed results, a strike last month claimed the life of Badruddin Haqqani, a son of the founder who was described as the network’s No. 3 leader.
The Obama administration has formally declared several individual members to be terrorists. But arguments against a formal terrorist designation for the movement range from the damage it might do to Washington’s perilously strained relationship with Islamabad and the risk it might pose to any resumption of tentative talks with the Taliban, which faltered early this year.
Describing the White House’s Afghanistan policy as ”heavily dependent” on a political solution to the conflict, an unnamed official posed this question to The Washington Post: “Why not do everything we can to promote that? Why create one more obstacle, which is largely symbolic in nature?”
Tomorrow’s deadline falls awkwardly, too, in the US presidential election campaign. The Obama camp is reportedly reluctant to be seen to act in a conciliatory way towards the Taliban or the Haqqanis. But perhaps that’s a moot point, given that his challenger, Mitt Romney, failed even to mention this hot war for which he would be commander-in-chief should he win the election, when he accepted the nomination at last week’s Republican National Convention.
A Clinton decision to defer designating the network as a terrorist movement would lend support to a belief in Washington that the Haqqanis and, by association, the Taliban are redeemable, and a negotiated end to the conflict is possible.
Conversely, putting Islamabad, the Taliban and the Haqqanis offside by labelling the network terrorists and putting perhaps all parties beyond genuine negotiation, sketches the contours of a bleak future in the region – an unresolved conflict in Afghanistan with all regional players, and Washington, sticking their oar in.
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