- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

With U.S.-Pakistani strategic talks set to start in Washington on Wednesday, the Obama administration is growing increasingly frustrated with Islamabad’s reluctance to shut down a terrorist group that provides safe haven for al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

U.S. officials, who have said the United States is supporting peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, will express their displeasure with Pakistan’s failure to crush the Haqqani Network’s operations that aid the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“We continue to call on the government of Pakistan to take action against the organizations that support the insurgency, that operate sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban … including organizations operating out of North Waziristan like the Haqqani Network,” Frank Ruggiero, deputy U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will lead delegations to the dialogue, the third of its kind this year. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani also will participate in the dialogue.

One Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the Haqqani Network as a “Pakistani puppet” and said it could be a spoiler in ongoing reconciliation efforts with elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

What’s more, a U.S. official said the Haqqani Network has American blood on its hands and is regularly involved in attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Haqqani Network enjoys support from elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus who see the group as a proxy in protecting Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. The network operates in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan, where the Pakistani military has been reluctant to go after militants.

According to Western officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive security issues, the Haqqanis receive training, weapons and even some operational support from the Pakistanis while executing attacks in Afghanistan, particularly against Indian interests.

Meanwhile, an Indian government report on the interrogation of David Coleman Headley, an American convicted of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, concludes that he and the attackers received extensive assistance from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Under questioning by Indian officials, Headley painted a detailed picture of how intertwined ISI was with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group accused of carrying out the attack that killed 166 people, according to the secret report, which was obtained by the Associated Press.

In March, Headley pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attack as well as preparing for an attack in Denmark.

Headley said the ISI provided individual handlers — many of them senior officers — for all the top members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and gave them directions and money to carry out their reconnaissance of prospective targets, the report states.

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s chief military commander, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, was close to the director general of the spy agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the report said.

“According to Headley, every big action of LeT is done in close coordination with ISI,” it added.

Pakistani officials have dismissed the report as baseless, as well as previous charges that the ISI has worked with anti-India terrorist groups.

Jeffrey Dressler, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and author of a report on the Haqqani Network, says the relationship between the Haqqanis and ISI benefits both groups.

“It is a mutually beneficial relationship. Al Qaeda gets shelter, safe haven and protection in North Waziristan in exchange for providing Haqqani fighters with some hard-line Islamic credentials, training and support for their operations inside Afghanistan,” Mr. Dressler said.

Pakistan has sought to protect its interests in Afghanistan and reportedly has released a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to take part in the reconciliation talks in Kabul.

Mullah Baradar was arrested in Karachi in February. A Western official said Pakistanis became worried that Mullah Baradar was trying to strike deals with the Afghan government that did not take Pakistans interests into consideration.

Over the past few months, U.S. drone attacks in North Waziristan have killed several top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including al Qaeda’s No. 3 official, Sheik Said al-Masri. The large number of al Qaeda leaders killed in the attacks show that the Haqqani Network continues to provide shelter to the group in Pakistan.

A second U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the drone operations are “chewing through the ranks” of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. “We’re working hard to make the terrorist occupation the least desirable job in Pakistan and elsewhere,” the official said.

Pakistani officials reportedly have tipped off the Haqqanis ahead of drone strikes in North Waziristan, enabling terrorist leaders to avoid getting hit.

“The U.S. and Pakistan have different opinions on the Haqqani Network and that would put some tension in the drone program,” said C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies.

“The Pakistanis are concerned that we will actually get Haqqani,” Ms. Fair added.

The U.S. has been cool to repeated requests from the Pakistani government for control over the drones.

A Pakistani official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said his country raises the request at every opportunity with the U.S.

“Whenever there is a dialogue between Pakistan and the U.S., whether it is strategic dialogue, whether it is defense or security related, this issue is being raised,” the Pakistani official said.

Mr. Ruggiero said the U.S. is working with the Pakistanis to counter extremist groups that operate inside Pakistan and drones “may very well be a topic of conversation in the strategic dialogue.”

“I don’t believe that is something the United States is planning to raise … if that is raised we are willing to discuss it,” he added.

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