The Haqqani Network, the terrorist group that the U.S. command in Afghanistan says is its most formidable enemy — worse than the Taliban or al Qaeda — has operated for a dozen years across the border in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area with little to fear other than sporadic drone strikes.
Now, even the drone strikes have stopped for the family-run gang that held Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five years.
In 2011, President Obama authorized a volley of drone hits on Haqqani headquarters in the town of Miranshah. The strikes were supposed to be the beginning of a concerted effort to stop Haqqani terrorists from attacking Americans in Afghanistan, but the campaign was short-lived.
“They could not pursue them as military planners had wanted to,” said Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal, citing too few troops as the reason.
Attacks stopped altogether this year as the Obama administration negotiated with the Taliban, a fused ally of the Haqqani group.
One analyst said that in addition to trading five senior Taliban leaders to win Sgt. Bergdahl’s release Saturday, the U.S. appears to have suspended its drone war in Pakistan and let targets slip away.
National security analysts say that neither the U.S. nor Pakistan has launched a comprehensive campaign to take down the group that the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 2012.
It is in and around Miranshah where Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, and his son Sirajuddin control 10,000 fighters, complete with training bases and religious schools for children. From there, they have executed some of the most brutal attacks inside Afghanistan, with a focus on Kabul.
Haqqani militants are responsible for improvised explosive device attacks that kill Americans across the border in provinces such as Paktia, where Sgt. Bergdahl walked away from his unit in 2009.
Sgt. Bergdahl surely will be asked all he knows about Haqqani when intelligence officers debrief him during the military’s reintegration process.
Ask national security analysts why the Haqqani Network prospers in war and in illegal contraband, and the answer is always the same: Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which sponsors Haqqani as a proxy against whoever is in power in Afghanistan — be it the Soviets in the 1980s, the Taliban in the 1990s or the NATO-backed democracy in the 2000s.
“It’s the Pakistani tie. It’s because of his ties with Pakistan and their intelligence service,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department official, explaining why Jalaluddin Haqqani enjoys a safe haven even though Pakistan is supposed to be a U.S. ally. “It’s almost like we’re putting the gloves on instead of taking the gloves off.”
Mr. Johnson said he knows of no concerted CIA-military campaign to eliminate the Haqqani organization in Afghanistan and take away the safe haven across the border.
“The Haqqanis have been unhindered since really December,” he said. “You have to go back and look at the broader negotiations. What the Taliban was demanding and the Haqqanis were demanding was for the U.S. to back off on the drone strikes and step down on the counterinsurgency patrols. And we did all that.”
The Long War Journal, a research website that collects data on U.S. drone strikes, says none have occurred this year against Haqqani, Taliban or al Qaeda targets in Pakistan.
Mr. Roggio said the U.S. could have stepped up its air war beyond individual drone missiles to include high-level bombings and cruise missiles, but there was never the political will to deal with the expected backlash from Pakistan.
He said there are various reasons why the U.S. never fully went after Haqqani on the ground. The 2010-11 troop surge included too few soldiers to hunt terrorists consistently in Afghanistan before they got back over the border.
“They’ve been targeted in drone strikes over the years. Top Haqqani Network leaders have been killed in drone strikes,” Mr. Roggio said. “But there is just no political will or capacity militarily to finish them off in Afghanistan or Pakistan. You know how controversial the drone strikes are. The U.S. is trying to disengage from Afghanistan now instead of engage.”
He said the risk of creating American prisoners inside Pakistan also was an issue.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War described the Haqqani problem this way: “The Haqqani network maintains a safe haven in North Waziristan, Pakistan, across Afghanistan’s southeastern border. The Pakistani Army has consistently refused to launch a military operation in North Waziristan despite the presence of al-Qaeda senior leadership. Elements within the Pakistani security establishment continue to view the Haqqani network as a useful ally and proxy force to represent their interests in Afghanistan.”
One of those “interests” is to have Haqqani attack Indian targets in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are archrivals.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, in March declared Haqqani “the most virulent strain of the insurgency. It’s the greatest risk of the force and, frankly, from a high-profile attack perspective, perhaps the greatest risk to the campaign.”
“So do we have a concerted effort to go after Haqqani? Yes,” Gen. Dunford said.
“When you look at Haqqani’s high-profile attack threat streams, and you look at the consequences of those threat streams against what we’re trying to accomplish right now, clearly mitigating the risk of the Haqqani network is one of my priorities as a commander,” the general said. “And that’s what you’ve seen over the last few months is really a matter of command emphasis as opposed to something different.”
Mr. Roggio said U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan, not taking on additional efforts.
“It’s really bluster on the part of Dunford,” he said.