- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan and NATO forces have stepped up their fight against a militant network considered the most dangerous threat facing coalition forces in Afghanistan, the nation’s defense officials said Tuesday.

The Haqqani network is the main target of a days-long operation along the Afghan side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, where the militants operate. The Haqqani group, which is linked to both the Taliban and al Qaeda, has been blamed for high profile attacks in the Afghan capital, including last month’s 19-hour siege against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

“They create problems for both countries,” Afghan army chief of staff, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, told reporters at a briefing.

The U.S. has been trying to coax Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network.

The issue is a main cause of tension between the U.S.-led coalition and Pakistan. Afghan and NATO officials are tiring of Pakistan’s inability or reluctance to confront the insurgent group. Pakistan’s reluctance to cooperate has prompted the U.S. to step up missile strikes against the Haqqani network in the group’s safe haven in North Waziristan in Pakistan.

The verbal and military fight against the Haqqani network intensified last month when then Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen called the Haqqanis a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani intelligence agency, and charged it directly supported the militants who had mounted the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

President Barack Obama has said that he believes Pakistan is not going after insurgent groups that it feels could end up regaining power in Afghanistan after coalition forces leave.

A senior official with the U.S.-led coalition told reporters at a briefing Tuesday that the coalition was very focused now on the Haqqani network. The group operates mainly in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, but the coalition has seen a significant uptick in Haqqani activity in Wardak and Logar provinces, which are on Kabul’s doorstep, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

Intelligence officials in Pakistan and the U.S. have confirmed that several top Haqqani network figures have been killed in targeted attacks in recent days.

At a briefing at the Afghan Defense Ministry, Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak also said that while Afghanistan’s current firepower is enough to deal with the insurgents, the nation needs more advanced weapons, like fighter jets, to defend against foreign threats and ensure a balance of power in the region.

“What we are asking to acquire is just the ability to defend ourselves, and also to be relevant in the future so that our friends and allies can count on us to participate in peacekeeping and other operations of mutual interest,” Wardak said.

The United States, as part of an effort to bolster, train and equip the Afghan army, has provided billions of dollars in equipment but has balked at supplying sophisticated technology like fighter planes, arguing that Afghanistan doesn’t need such armaments and does not yet have the capacity to maintain them.

Wardak said about $10 billion has already been allocated by the U.S. to equip and train the country’s army and police. He said another package totaling about $10 billion is being discussed, but must still be approved by U.S. lawmakers.

According to the NATO coalition, $2.7 billion in equipment has arrived or will arrive between August 2011 and March 2012. This includes about 22,700 vehicles, 39,500 weapons, 52,200 pieces of communication equipment and 38 aircraft.

Training the Afghan security forces is a top priority for the U.S.-led international coalition that has been battling the Taliban and affiliated insurgents for the past decade. NATO wants to withdraw its combat forces by the end of 2014 and needs its Afghan counterparts to be ready to assume full security responsibilities by then.

The defense minister did not name any potential regional threats. Pakistan and Iran — both of which have far better equipped arsenals — are widely seen as two neighbors with the potential to influence the country’s shaky reconstruction effort and push to crush the stubborn Taliban insurgency.

Karimi said that building a strong military was crucial as way of ensuring the balance of power in the region and as “a deterrence for this country against our neighbors.”

“But by no means (do) we have a policy of offensive operations,” he said. “Our strategy is defensive.”

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