The Haqqani network easily meets the State Department’s legal criteria as a foreign terrorist organization: it’s foreign, engages in terrorism, and kills Americans serving in Afghanistan. When the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen, calls for the Haqqani network to be so branded, adding it to the official terrorist list seems a no-brainer. But this narrow technical question skews both parochial electoral politics and competing strategic visions.
Politics may stop at the water’s edge, but much less so during the run-up to a national election. Congress has given Secretary Clinton until 9 September to either designate the group or explain her rationale for not doing so. No American should want to undercut our troops in the field and their commander. Yet, it is not clear what a legal label will achieve.
Domestic politics intrude in part because there are multiple legal avenues for attacking terrorism. Most of the senior leadership of the Haqqani network is already individually sanctioned under a different vehicle--the Specially Designated Global Terrorists list. And there are hundreds of groups that meet the criteria for the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list but do not get added.
What’s more is that any practical consequences of designation would be limited, at least in the short term. While it might provide a high-profile vehicle to pressure other governments, the FTO list applies directly only to assets, supporters or members in the United States. It could even cause embarrassment, as a proportion of the money that fuels the Haqqanis is reportedly extorted from American-backed construction firms erecting roads, schools and other state-building projects in Eastern Afghanistan.
Still, American commanders should be given every conceivable tool to undercut the organization that is the source of the most high-profile attacks against US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. And failing to designate the network could make the Obama administration look weak against enemies of the United States right before the election. No one can dispute that the Haqqanis are engaging in terrorist tactics, as well as extortion, smuggling, weapons manufacturing and kidnapping. Some argue that the top priority for the State department should be to concentrate on providing U.S. commanders every possible tool to win the war.
But that leads to the other key dimension: contrasting visions of U.S. strategy, especially what it means to ‘win’ in Afghanistan. Whether to designate the Haqqani network requires a clear vision of the American endgame in Afghanistan, and this is missing in action. If the outcome of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is to be a peace agreement with the Taliban and its allies, then designating the network gains little and could cost a lot. The Haqqanis and the Tailban are deeply intertwined. Any peace accord with the likely power brokers in a post-ISAF Afghanistan must include the Haqqanis, as they are deeply embedded in Afghanistan’s economy and will outlast Western forces. They certainly outlasted the Soviets: during the 1980s, the CIA was allied with the Haqqanis in the struggle against Soviet occupation. Designation will also complicate negotiations to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held by the Haqqanis since 2009. Those who support designation generally also support beefing up military forces in Afghanistan; yet military force will not eliminate the Haqqanis from their own turf.
The other vital strategic question is the future of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. The Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has deep historical ties with the Haqqanis and uses the network as a proxy. In September 2011, cell phone records revealed calls between the ISI and operatives who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The network enjoys sanctuary in North Waziristan, Pakistan, and from there orchestrates attacks against U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. So the CIA in turn targets Haqqani leaders with drone attacks, last week killing Baduddin Haqqani, operational commander and son of the network’s founder.
With this record of collusion, Pakistan will not change its behavior if the Haqqani network is given a new designation. Obama administration efforts to pressure the Pakistan government to target the group have failed. The Pakistanis see the U.S. as short-term players in a longer-term drama where they’ll be dealing with the Haqqanis and the Taliban for decades to come. Indeed, if sanctions lists are the focus of U.S. policy, the one best tailored to this evolving situation is the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, not the FTO list, because Pakistan’s role is undeniable.
But no one wants to burn bridges with Pakistan by calling out their state sponsorship of terrorism, not least because the future stability of Afghanistan, and indeed of the entire region after the withdrawal of US and NATO troops depends upon Pakistan’s cooperation.
Officials in Washington have a choice. They can play politics or pursue sound strategy, but they don’t have the luxury of doing both. While using existing legal mechanisms to sanction the Haqqani network, they should be focusing on the missing long-term strategy for Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The failure to designate a regional strategy is the real adversary staring the United States in the face.