The effort is taking on added urgency as the clock ticks down on a
NATO combat mission in Afghanistan set to end in December, and as
questions persist about whether Pakistan will take action against a
group some U.S. officials believe is quietly supported by Pakistani
The Obama administration has created a special unit based in Kabul
to coordinate efforts against the militant group, according to
officials familiar with the matter. It was set up late last year, as
part of a new strategy that involves multiple government agencies.
The unit, headed by a colonel and known in military parlance as a
"fusion cell", brings together special forces, conventional forces,
intelligence personnel, and some civilians to improve targeting of
Haqqani members and to heighten the focus on the group, the
"Things are coming together in terms of the more comprehensive
approach (against the Haqqanis). So, there's a lot of focus -
there's a lot of energy behind it right now," said a U.S. defense
official, who asked not to be identified.
It was not immediately clear whether the intensified focus on the
Haqqanis has led to increased strikes on the group by the U.S.
military or the CIA, which operates drones over Pakistan's tribal
And it remains to be seen, this late in the NATO combat mission, how
much damage the United States can inflict on the Haqqani network,
which has proven resilient and uses Pakistan's tribal areas along
the Afghan border, including the North Waziristan region, as a
The White House announced on Tuesday that President Barack Obama had
ordered the Pentagon to prepare for a possible complete withdrawal
of troops following Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign
a bilateral security pact.
The Haqqani network, which professes obedience to Taliban leader
Mullah Omar, is believed to have been involved in some of the most
audacious attacks of the Afghan war. These include assaults on
hotels popular with foreigners, a bloody bombing of the Indian
embassy in Kabul, a 2011 attack on the U.S. embassy, and several
massive truck bombing attempts.
The group is also believed to be holding Bowe Bergdahl, the only
known U.S. soldier missing in the war in Afghanistan.
Some U.S. lawmakers have complained that the Obama administration
has dragged its feet in cracking down on the group after designating
it a "foreign terrorist organization" in September 2012.
For example, it is unclear what diplomatic pressure Washington is
putting on Islamabad to arrest individuals connected to the group,
the lawmakers say.
This month, the U.S. Treasury froze the U.S. assets of three
suspected militants linked to the Haqqanis, the Obama
administration's first significant non-military move against the
network since that 2012 designation.
The Pentagon has regarded the Haqqanis, seen as more skilled in
attacks on foreign targets than other militants in Afghanistan, as
an acute threat to its soldiers for years.
U.S. General Joe Dunford, who commands U.S. and allied forces in
Afghanistan, told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of his concern about
the state of the current U.S. effort against the group in a private
letter last November, sources familiar with the matter said.
During a recent visit to Washington, Dunford told senior White House
officials that the group was a top priority for him, the sources
[to top of second column]
'PERVASIVE, VIRULENT ENTITY'
Retired General John Allen, who commanded U.S. and NATO forces in
Afghanistan from 2011-2013, said he initiated the request to
designate the Haqqanis as a terrorist group in spring 2012 because
military efforts alone were insufficient.
"My reason for doing that was that it is simply such a pervasive,
virulent entity," Allen said in an interview.
"I was going to pressure them in every possible way inside the
country, but I wanted them to feel it at a strategic level, to
include attacking their finances, their assets - pressuring the
entire nervous system of the Haqqanis."
Some Afghan and U.S. officials remain skeptical that the United
States can seriously weaken militant groups such as the Haqqanis
unless Pakistan cracks down on them from within or better controls
"Until the Pakistanis do something about the safe havens, that's
going to be a problem. (Militants) can recruit and train and equip
and prepare to launch in Pakistan," said Major General Stephen
Townsend, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Townsend was speaking about the array of militants who infiltrate
the border with Pakistan, not just the Haqqanis.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani military launched new air strikes on
militant hideouts in North Waziristan, killing at least 30 people.
Pakistani fighter jets have been pounding targets in the area since
efforts to engage the Pakistani Taliban in peace talks broke down
The former top U.S. military officer, Mike Mullen, told U.S.
lawmakers in 2011 the Haqqanis were a "veritable arm" of the
Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, which some U.S. officials believe
seeks to strengthen the Taliban and its allies as a means of
ensuring that archenemy India does not wield influence in
Afghanistan. Pakistan denies such charges.
Founded by mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, the group fought
the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with varying levels of
support from Pakistani, Saudi and U.S. policy-makers.
In November, six members of Congress sent Obama a letter calling
efforts against the Haqqanis "woefully insufficient", according to a
copy of the letter obtained by Reuters.
"It is past time for the administration to comprehensively address
the threat posed by the Haqqani network's deadly attacks," Mike
Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Reuters
in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Missy
Ryan; Editing by Paul Tait, Warren Strobel and Ross Colvin)
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