WASHINGTON — Pressure is growing on the Obama administration to designate as a foreign terrorist organization the Afghan insurgent group that U.S. officials accuse of attacking the U.S. Embassy with the support of Pakistan's most powerful spy agency.
The Haqqani network, which operates from sanctuaries in Pakistan's remote tribal area, has been kept off the State Department list of terrorist organizations since the George W. Bush administration because including it would effectively bar the group from negotiations on an Afghan war settlement that the U.S. is trying to start.
Listing the group also could lead to demands that Pakistan be declared a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that would trigger harsh U.S. sanctions that could prompt Pakistan to end its cooperation in fighting al Qaida. The measures would include a potentially destabilizing cutoff of U.S. military and economic aid to the cash-strapped, nuclear-armed country battling its own Islamic insurgency.
"The designation process is a blunt tool," said Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07. "It limits what you can do, who you can talk to."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Designating a country, however flawed the relationship is ... would be very problematic for U.S. counterterrorism efforts," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Taking a group off the list is a lengthy, difficult process, noted Kenneth Katzman, an expert with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.
Efforts to have the Haqqani network declared a terrorist organization have gained fresh energy after Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged that it staged a Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy and adjacent NATO headquarters in Kabul with the support of Pakistan's military-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI.
"There are people (within the administration) who increasingly are thinking that it is a good idea" to designate the Haqqanis as a foreign terrorist organization, said the U.S. official. "The intention was always to revisit the issue in light of the particularly brazen recent attacks."
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 22, Mullen called the Haqqani network a "veritable arm" of the ISI, which he accused of using the group and other Afghan insurgents as "proxies" to pursue Pakistan's long-held goal of preventing rival India from gaining influence in Kabul. Pakistan vehemently denies the charge.
The panel chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he hoped the administration would "move quickly" to add the group to the State Department terrorist list, noting that he had repeatedly pressed for the "long-overdue" step.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., writing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Mullen's testimony, said that the group "meets the standards for designation" as a foreign terrorist organization by conducting "attacks against U.S. targets and personnel in Afghanistan" and posing "a continuing threat."
She repeated her previous request to have the Haqqani network placed on the list and asked Clinton to "respond in writing."
The State Department, in a prepared statement, said that seven Haqqani leaders, financiers and senior operatives have been placed on U.S. and U.N. lists of global terrorists, subjecting them to asset freezes and travel bans. The statement, however, did not address declaring the organization itself a terrorist organization.
Advocates of such a designation say it would send a serious political message, both to the Haqqanis and to the Pakistanis.
"It does send a clear signal that the U.S. ... isn't going to negotiate with groups attacking its civilians because that would demonstrate weakness and encourage new attacks," said Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The idea of including the Haqqanis in a negotiating process is dead in the water."
It also would be a rejection of the Pakistan military's demand that the network be included in any negotiations to end the Afghan war, she said.
"It's a failure of (U.S.) policy that Pakistan still believes that it can reinstall its proxies in Kabul," she said.
The U.S. has declared more than 45 groups as international terrorist organizations. They include Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite Muslim movement that dominates Lebanon's government, Hamas, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic group that runs the Gaza Strip, and al Qaida and its offshoots.
Mullen's charge of Pakistani involvement in the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have reignited tensions between Washington and Islamabad, which broke out openly after the U.S. sent troops into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden on May 2. The raid on the military town of Abbottabad was conducted without Pakistan's knowledge or permission.
Several experts and U.S. officials agreed that a decision to list the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization could lead to calls to add Pakistan to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism because of the alleged ISI support for the organization and other Afghan insurgent groups, including the Taliban.
That designation would trigger a range of U.S. sanctions, including cutoff of arms-related exports and economic aid to Pakistan.
The U.S. also would have to oppose any new World Bank loans to Pakistan, and U.S. citizens would be prohibited from engaging in financial transactions with Islamabad without U.S. Treasury Department permission.
Pakistan almost certainly would respond by ending counterterrorism cooperation that has helped the U.S. devastate the remnants of al Qaida's leadership hiding in Pakistan's tribal area bordering Afghanistan, mostly using CIA-operated missile-firing drones.
"What happens to the drone program, which is operated with their (Pakistan's) agreement, the program that has arguably been the most successful against al Qaida?" said the U.S. official.
Another casualty likely would be the U.S. military's use of the Pakistani port city of Karachi for the transshipment of some 50 percent of the supplies required by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, experts said.
Neumann, the former U.S. ambassador, argued that there are "other forms of pressure" the U.S. could to use against the Haqqani network that would still keep the door open to its inclusion in any future Afghan peace negotiations.
These could include cross-border U.S. special forces raids or CIA drone operations against the network's top leaders, he said.
"We've got lots of other tools to use," Neumann said. "You have a situation in which you need to maintain rewards and pressure. And you need to use them together. This is not an either/or situation."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.