Continued support from Pakistan's military and intelligence agency for a major Islamic terrorist network is hamstringing the Obama administration's efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from neighboring Afghanistan, according to Western officials and analysts.
Pakistani officials have resisted U.S. pressure to crack down on the so-called Haqqani Network, which shelters Taliban and al Qaeda militants who travel unimpeded between their safe havens in Pakistan and the battlefields in Afghanistan.
In what a Western diplomat described as a quid pro quo arrangement, the network, in return for safe passage across the border, refrains from attacking Pakistani interests and encourages the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan.
"The Haqqani Network has become a significant source of tension between Washington and Islamabad," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, a report from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned that the United States must overhaul its aid to Afghanistan to avert a possible economic collapse when U.S. troops leave in 2014.
"Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless proper planning begins now," the report said.
The Haqqani Network, led by the father-son duo Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani, operates in North Waziristan, which abuts Afghanistan. The group has headquarters in and around Miram Shah, the region's capital.
"Ties between Pakistani military and intelligence and the Haqqanis remain strong in some cases, and that's extremely problematic," said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the subject.
"We've asked the Pakistanis for assistance to pressure the Haqqanis, and they should frankly do more to thwart the actions of a group that stages attacks against U.S. forces on the other side of the border in Afghanistan," the U.S. official added.
Proxy for Pakistanis
Jeffrey Dressler, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has investigated the Haqqani Network, said Pakistan's security establishment views the group as its proxy to extend Pakistani influence inside Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency also use the Haqqanis as a tool to check India's influence in Afghanistan by attacking diplomatic missions and other interests of its regional archenemy, he added.
The Haqqanis are thought to have orchestrated many high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including an assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and suicide attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008 and October 2009.
The network's ability to persuade many Pakistani Taliban to fight in Afghanistan rather than attack the Pakistani state is significant, Mr. Dressler said.
Elements in Pakistan's security services in the past have warned the Haqqanis of impending U.S. Predator drone strikes and even taken them into custody to protect them from those attacks.
Pakistan denies supporting the Haqqani Network. Pakistani officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Imtiaz Gul, who heads the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, said Pakistan's military and the ISI are making "conscious efforts to redefine their relationship with the Haqqani Network" since the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2. The al Qaeda leader was killed in a Navy SEALs raid on his hide-out in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, about 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
"Pakistan itself has refrained from direct attacks on the network, but has never objected to raids on the Haqqani clan," Mr. Gul said.
Mohammed Haqqani, a son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, was killed in a drone strike last year.
Western officials are counting on an improvement in the security situation to justify the start of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next month. President Obama is expected to announce the pace of that withdrawal in coming days.
Talking to the Taliban
The Obama administration has stepped up its efforts to contact the Taliban's senior leadership, including the group's one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in a bid to secure peace in Afghanistan.
In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban, which once imposed brutal methods to rule Afghanistan, because it continued to shelter bin Laden after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran who served as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, said the Haqqani Network is "one of the toughest problems there is with regard to reconciliation with anyone in Afghanistan."
"It is hard to see how the Haqqanis would become part of any reconciliation process in Afghanistan unless they were strongly pushed by the Pakistanis and the nature of that relationship changed substantially," he added.
"A major Pakistani role will be necessary if there is going to be any set of deals in Afghanistan that will not be upset by the Haqqanis."
The U.S. has ratcheted up its efforts against the Haqqanis, with increased Predator drone strikes and financial sanctions.
"David Petraeus has made no secret of his campaign against the Haqqanis," said the Western diplomat. Army Gen. Petraeus is the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Jalaluddin Haqqani gained notoriety as a fearsome commander of the mujahedeen that fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During that period, he received funds and weapons from U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services.
Charlie Wilson, the late Texas Democrat who helped send millions of dollars to the Afghan resistance while serving in Congress, once described Jalaluddin Haqqani as "goodness personified."
Mr. Haqqani and Osama bin Laden forged a friendship during the fight against the Soviets. When U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, Mr. Haqqani allowed the al Qaeda leader to use his group's safe havens in Pakistan.
The Haqqanis are ethnic Pashtuns and belong to the Zadran tribe in Paktia province in southeastern Afghanistan. The network is active across much of the region and seeks to regain control over its traditional bases in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces.
A senior Afghan official, however, claimed the network has no support among Afghans.
"I don't think Haqqani has any support among the Zadran in Paktia and Khost provinces," said Ghulam Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan's education minister and a member of the peace council charged with leading reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
"If he has any support that could be from non-Afghan networks of terrorism," he added.
Mr. Wardak is reluctant to include the Haqqanis in any reconciliation effort.
"Those who are getting resourced, equipped and trained by international terrorists, I don't think they fall in the category of whom we should talk to and who should be reconciled," he said.
Western officials and analysts think the Haqqani Network's core, particularly Sirajuddin Haqqani and those around him, will be unwilling to make peace regardless of what Pakistan or Afghanistan do.
Sirajuddin grew up in North Waziristan in the company of foreign Islamic jihadists and is viewed as an ideological extremist who has ambitions that extend beyond southeastern Afghanistan.
Jalaluddin Haqqani has been relegated to the role of ideological figurehead.
The Western diplomat said it is unlikely there will ever be a concrete peace in Afghanistan.
"We won't get a Dayton-style peace agreement in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the peace accord that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.