The Haqqani Network, a group of Pakistan-based terrorists that has killed coalition troops in Afghanistan, is willing to participate in peace talks with the U.S. as long as the Afghan Taliban's top leader approves, according to a senior commander in the group.
But the commander said the Haqqanis would continue to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, with the goal of establishing an Islamic state.
The terrorist group represents a strategic threat to U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan, and a peace deal would help stabilize the region before U.S. and international combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
The Haqqani Network's new willingness to join peace talks follows action against the group by the U.S. and the United Nations.
In September, the Obama administration designated the Haqqani Network as a foreign terrorist organization. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton followed up that action last week by listing the group's chief of suicide operations, Qari Zakir, as a "specially designated global terrorist."
The U.N. Security Council's Taliban sanctions committee last week also placed the Haqqani Network on its blacklist. The action requires all U.N. members states, including Pakistan, to implement an asset freeze, travel ban and an arms embargo against the group.
U.S. and other Western officials say the Haqqani Network is supported by elements within Pakistan's army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
"Pakistan's support for the Haqqani Network has increased, through both facilitating additional sanctuary and providing strategic and operational guidance," Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, concluded in a report in March.
Pakistan's army has been reluctant to flush the militants out of their hide-outs in North Waziristan, which abuts Afghanistan, but Pakistani officials deny any ties to the Haqqani Network.
In an interview with Reuters news agency, the militant commander, who declined to be identified, accused the U.S. of being insincere in peace efforts and trying to create a rift between the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
"However, if the central shura, headed by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, decided to hold talks with the United States, we would welcome it," he added.
In January, the Taliban agreed to open an office in Qatar. It also sought the release of five Taliban officials being held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a confidence-building measure.
In return, Taliban leaders said they would release an American prisoner of war. The U.S. has not released the Taliban militants.
Peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have stalled over the issue. The Taliban has accused the U.S. of shifting the goals.
The Taliban's leadership itself is split over participating in peace talks. U.S. efforts to start the process have deepened rifts between the group's political leaders, who favor reconciliation, and its field commanders, who are determined to continue the war.
Both the Taliban's political leaders and field commanders are united in their insistence not to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, which they derisively refer to as a Western puppet.
A report by the Royal United Services Institute in September found that the Taliban is prepared to take part in peace talks in return for international political recognition. The report is based on interviews with four senior Taliban figures close to Mullah Omar.
The Haqqani Network — led by the father-son duo Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani — is headquartered in and around Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, and allows al Qaeda and Taliban militants to use its safe havens in Pakistan.
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