The Haqqani network comprises some of Afghanistan's most lethal insurgents. Why isn't the White House doing more to stop them?
- By Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.
The Haqqani network has long been one of the most lethal and dangerous insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan. Now it’s forcing an interagency battle of wills in Washington.
The United States has spent years battling the Haqqani organization on the ground of eastern Afghanistan and trying to cut off its flows of money from the Persian Gulf. But it hasn’t come close to defeating the group. More than a year ago, Barack Obama’s administration formally designated the network a foreign terrorist organization, a move meant to make it harder for the group to raise money. Critics of the White House, though, say it hasn’t done enough to dismantle the most dangerous insurgent group in Afghanistan. Congress is now trying to force the administration to step up the fight.
Tucked inside the defense spending bill the U.S. Senate passed late Thursday evening is a provision that forces the administration to come up with a plan to attack the Pakistani-based Haqqani network where it lives — by going after its cash. It’s an effort the White House and the State Department have reportedly been resistant to pursue as the United States attempts to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, build momentum toward a peace settlement in the region, and mend ties with the Pakistani government — the very government with which the Haqqanis have had ties for years. But the provision stayed in the bill.
"We need a comprehensive strategy from them about how the network operates, how they recruit and how they travel," a congressional staffer told Foreign Policy. "Shockingly, nothing like this has been done."
Although the amendment requires a range of actions, its primary function is to force the Obama administration to get serious about curtailing the network’s financing. The five-page provision, "Report on Plans to Disrupt and Degrade Haqqani Network Activities and Finances," also calls for the administration — from the departments of Defense, State, Treasury, and the director of National Intelligence — to come up with a plan and report it to Congress within nine months. The plan should include an assessment of the network by the intelligence community, a review of the administration’s current policies, and "metrics" to measure the success of the new plan.
Congressional frustration over this issue has been mounting with the administration for more than a year. Obama’s team first designated the Haqqanis a foreign terrorist group in September 2012 but seemed to do little to go after the network’s finances or learn much about its recruiting and other activities. Then last month, Gen. Joe Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raising concerns about the lack of a comprehensive effort to counter the network. The letter, whose contents are classified, hinted that a whole-of-government approach would put added pressure on the Haqqanis and fully leverage its designation as a foreign terrorist organization.
Dunford and other senior military leaders have long seen the Haqqanis as one of the best-trained, and best-armed, insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They were the first to build IEDs with the powerful explosive material potassium chlorate. They were the first in Afghanistan to equip their bombs with advanced remote-triggering devices, instead of the cruder pressure-plate triggers that have been the norm in the country. Senior military officials believe the group has killed hundreds of American troops and several thousand Afghan security personnel.
On Dec. 11, House members met with Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins to discuss the issue but came away angry that he was not taking their concerns seriously.
"The manner in which the Ambassador addressed Members’ questions was not helpful to our efforts to address this important issue mutually," reads a Dec. 20 letter six members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry obtained by Foreign Policy. "Frankly, his manner was one of the least professional engagements we have had with the Administration."
The letter noted Dunford’s request. But it also reflected Congress’ growing exasperation with the administration: "…we have repeatedly raised concerns that the Administration lacks a whole of government approach to dismantling the Haqqani network and the Administration does not adequately leverage your recent Foreign Terrorist Organization designation," the members wrote to Kerry.
The letter was signed by Reps. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Rogers, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and others. That meeting may have been the last straw and triggered the language of the amendment that passed in the legislation on the evening of Dec. 19.
The amendment to the defense bill was inserted by Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican of North Carolina. On his Facebook page Friday, Burr’s statement read in part: "I am very pleased that Senate Leadership included my amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which calls on the Secretary of Defense to issue a report outlining the Defense Department’s strategy to disrupt and degrade the Haqqani Network’s activities and finances."
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The United States has been going after the Haqqanis militarily for years, hunting its fighters in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, targeting its leaders with drones, and putting a $5 million bounty on the head of its top leader, Siraj Haqqani. But critics of the Obama administration say it hasn’t used every element of American power to neutralize the group. Congress wants the White House to step up these other, non-military forms of pressure to degrade the organization.
For example, backers of the new provision want the Treasury Department and agencies like the CIA to make it harder for the group to raise money from wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf and prevent it from running what amounts to a protection racket in eastern Afghanistan and parts of neighboring Pakistan. The United States has been trying to pull that off for years with little success, but the new bill will make it an even higher priority.
Afghan and coalition forces have fought the Haqqanis for years, targeting the network with drone strikes inside of Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But critics of administration policy argue nothing has been done to go after the network more strategically, namely by cutting off its financing or even devising a plan to do so.
"They need to produce a strategy for how they’re going after the network and then explain why they haven’t seized any money even though they have the [foreign terrorist organization] designation for over a year," the congressional staffer said.
The Haqqanis have long been seen as a strategic threat to Afghanistan as well as U.S. national security interests in that region. They’ve been blamed for numerous attacks, especially the ones in and around Kabul. It was the Haqqani group, for example, that launched the deadly attack near the U.S. embassy in Kabul in September 2011 that lasted 19 hours and killed three coalition soldiers, American defense officials say.
The threat the network poses was punctuated again in November when Afghan national security forces intercepted a Haqqani-backed plot near the border with Pakistan using one of the largest truck bombs ever built — a reflection of what some see as a concerning trend of using ever larger bombs in their attacks. The truck contained 61,500 pounds of explosives — and would have caused an explosion thought to be ten times the size of the bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — capable of l
eveling whole city blocks and killing scores of people. The plan was stopped before it could be executed but pointed to the growing danger the network poses to stability in Afghanistan. The United States does not track specifically how many deaths are attributable to the organization, but some estimates put it at more than half of the nearly 2,300 American service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
The network leverages its sanctuary across the border in the Waziristan region of Pakistan and is considered to be one of the country’s most effective insurgent groups, with close ties to al Qaeda. But what makes the Haqqani network so nettlesome for Washington is that it is closely tied to Pakistan’s security forces; therefore degrading it poses political and operational challenges.
Another complication is that the group got its start battling the Soviets with American-provided money and weaponry: Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, later made famous in a book and movie, even visited Afghanistan in the spring of 1987 to spend time with the group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani. The group has in the past signaled a willingness to negotiate with the United States, however, and some senior American officials believe the network could eventually sign a peace treaty of sorts with the Karzai government. The prospect of talks is the main reason that the administration seemed to oppose the provision forcing a strategic plan to degrade the network, even after it was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in September 2012.
"We have a designation, and no plan for executing it," said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program. Chayes believes that Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Dobbins’ office "has long been fixated on negotiating with the insurgents, and a perhaps Ireland-based corollary that you have to preserve the leadership in order to negotiate with them." But, she says, the White House is ill-advised to take such an approach.
"What they don’t understand is that negotiating with the leadership rewards Pakistan’s deliberate use of armed militants as an instrument of foreign policy," Chayes said. But the most effective way to induce militants to negotiate independently of Pakistani influence is to begin hitting the top of the network, she argues. "Then people will start calculating their costs and benefits differently and start taking risks — since negotiations might offer them a prospect that is better than the status quo."
State Department officials say they didn’t oppose the legislation and take the threat the Haqqanis pose to U.S. security "extremely seriously." According to one State official, they have actually designed a "whole-of-government effort to combat it."
"We actively utilize military, intelligence, diplomatic, and financial channels to disrupt their activities and dismantle the organization’s leadership," the State official said by e-mail, agreeing only to speak on background about a sensitive matter inside the government. "DOD, the intelligence community, State, Treasury, and [the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization] are critical members of that whole of government effort, and we have briefed Congress on their coordinated efforts, which have had some significant results to date, but we would agree that we have more work to do as long as they pose a threat."
But clearly, Gen. Dunford, members of Congress, and other elements inside the Defense Department believe more could be done. The Pentagon would only say that it is reviewing the legislation. "The department is reviewing the NDAA legislation for its potential impacts on DoD policies," said a defense official. "It would be premature to comment on specifics at this time."
Tony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said devising a plan to go after the Haqqani network alone doesn’t answer bigger questions about the proper U.S. counterterrorism strategy, not only in that region but in Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and in other places.
"It is a tiny part of a much broader problem," he said. And forcing the White House to come up with a strategy doesn’t mean it will do it.
"Announcing a strategy doesn’t mean you are going to take action," he said. "We’ve mastered the ability to announce strategies without doing anything about them."
Cordesman was dubious that the measure would actually for the White House to do anything.
"Any individual in the executive branch that hasn’t found a way to ignore a reporting requirement or a request for a strategy is so dumb that they deserve anything they get," he said.
Yochi Dreazen contributed to this report.