The timing is interesting. The Indian external affairs minister, with a small army of Indian reporters and staff, is in Pakistan on what has been a rather lacklustre but still a critical trip.
And even though the US secretary of state is on a foreign tour herself, not in the saddle in Washington (and more importantly, was a full three days short of breaching the September 9 deadline set by the US Senate to either explain why the Haqqani network shouldn’t be labelled an ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ (FTO), versus actually doing it), American diplomats say there is no connection between the timing of the designation and Pakistan’s engagements with India.
But that means: a) that she obviously she doesn’t care much about the sensitivity of Indo-Pak bilateralism which could get thorny because the Haqqanis, allegedly based in North Waziristan, are widely blamed for an infamous attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and b) she doesn’t work weekends, which is disturbing for the world’s most powerful diplomat.
What’s in a Network?
The Haqqani Network is supposed to be aligned with the Taliban and al Qaeda and is considered one of the most experienced and versatile militant groups involved in the Afghan insurgency. The network is, literally, a bit like a crime family. Lots of cousins and uncles dominate the top tiers of leadership, specialising in different roles, skills, regions and formations.
Some of its leaders have been already been placed terror watchlists by the Americans, which allows US to target the Haqqanis’ finances. But the Haqqanis have not been neutralised, and have become one of the core issues of the argument between Islamabad and Washington over the endgame in Afghanistan.
When the Pakistanis are blamed for “hedging” in Afghanistan, their dark horse is the Haqqani network. When there is an unusually bold attack, like the September 2011 assault on the US embassy in Kabul, it’s because the Haqqanis are a “veritable arm” of the ISI. So goes the American perspective. And it’s been battled by the likes of Hina Rabbani Khar, the young Pakistani foreign minister, who made her bones, and headlines, with a crunching reaction to Admiral (retd.) Mike Mullen’s anti-Pakistan swansong to the US Congress last fall: that once upon a time in Afghanistan, at a time when jihad was a good word, the Haqqanis used to be the CIA’s “blue-eyed boys”.
Why the designation?
The FTO designation just gives the sophisticated American legal, legislative and war machine more to teeth to take a bigger bite out of the network and its affiliates. But a new backgrounder published by the Washington-based Institute of the Study of War says Pakistan, too, could be a part of punishment that is to proceed: “The FTO designation will also allow the US government to pursue facilitators of the network, including preventing second- and third-party institutions … Labelling the Haqqani Network as an FTO also messages Pakistan’s military leadership that continued support for and tolerance of Haqqani Network operations is no longer acceptable to the US.”
This is where Islamabad needs to watch its back. There have already been calls by the Bruce Reidels of Washington to slam sanctions against the ISI, and/or even its officers, as Aabpara allegedly works outside of the control of the government and even Chaklala. By being able to pursue “second and third-party institutions” through the FTO, the US gets in a better position to target the ISI, or, for that matter, any formation in the Pakistani military or any other business or enterprise in Pakistan that can be connected with the Haqqanis.
What happens now?
In the short run, nothing. Pakistan is adopting a cool wait-and-see stance by distancing itself from the designation. If the Americans are good at using technicalities to build pressure, then Pakistan’s foreign ministry seems to be getting smoother at avoiding it: “The US govt decision to designate the Haqqani Network a terrorist organisation is an internal matter for the US. The Haqqanis are not Pakistani nationals and therefore there is (sic) no grounds for us to be involved.”
Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) has long been accused of sheltering and abetting the Haqqanis. Consequently, the MOFA, ISPR et al have gotten very good at saying “prove it”. Now, they’re going a step further. The Haqqanis are an American and an Afghan problem. Brilliant. But the American legislative net will eventually catch up through the wide seek-and-sanction effect of the FTO.
The foreign office will be able to backstop and goalkeep for Chaklala and Aabpara in the short-run with this approach. But not against a sustained diplomatic and economic assault.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2012.