By Julian Barnes for The Wall Street Journal
The U.S. military has stopped lobbying Pakistan to help root out one of the biggest militant threats to coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say, acknowledging that the failure to win better help from Islamabad threatens to damage a linchpin of their Afghan strategy.
Until recently, the U.S. had been pressing Islamabad to launch major operations against the Haqqani network, a militant group connected to al Qaeda that controls a key border region where U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden has hidden.
The group has been implicated in the Dec. 30 bombing of a CIA base in Khost, a January assault on Afghan government ministries and a luxury hotel in Kabul, and in the killing of five United Nations staffers in last year’s raid on a U.N. guesthouse.
But military officials have decided that pressing Pakistan for help against the group—as much as it is needed—is counterproductive.
U.S. officials believe elements of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, are continuing to protect the Haqqani network to help it retain influence in Afghanistan once the U.S. military eventually leaves the country. U.S. officials say the support includes housing, intelligence and even strategic planning,
During a trip to Pakistan last month, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chose not to raise the issue of an offensive against the Haqqani network—a departure from the message U.S. defense officials delivered earlier this year.
The U.S. also had intensified the pressure for Pakistani operations in North Waziristan in May after the attempted bombing of New York’s Times Square was linked to militants in Pakistan.
Pakistan officials reject the U.S. conclusions about their efforts. They say they are taking significant action against militants in North Waziristan. They say their intelligence service has severed all ties with the Haqqani network. Islamabad points to a series of surgical strikes the Pakistani military has executed in North Waziristan, and say they have ratcheted up those efforts in recent months in a precursor toward more aggressive moves.
Pakistan’s operations complement a Central Intelligence Agency drone campaign targeting militants in North Waziristan, a Pakistani official said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised the Pakistani effort to rout al Qaeda and other militants from Swat and South Waziristan. “Are they doing a lot to help us? The answer is yes,” Mr. Gates said Thursday.
U.S. officials acknowledged the recent Pakistani operations, but discounted their value against the Haqqani network.
A U.S. defense official said that most of the raids have been against the Pakistani Taliban, a militant group that poses no direct threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but opposes the Pakistani government.
Pakistan has failed to act on detailed intelligence about the Haqqanis provided in recent months, said a senior military official. “Our forces have put a significant dent in the Haqqani network,” said the official. “It would be good if the [Pakistanis] would do the same on their side.”
U.S. officials say they have concluded that making more demands, public or private, on Islamabad to start a military offensive against the Haqqani network will only strain U.S.-Pakistani relations.
The Haqqani network has decades-long ties with al Qaeda leaders that date back to their days of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan prior to al Qaeda’s formation.
The network now is believed to provide al Qaeda with protection, shelter and support in North Waziristan. The group’s historic base is in Afghanistan’s Khost province and it remains the most potent insurgent force in the eastern part of the country and is closely aligned with the Taliban.
The number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan is thought to be very small, under 100; Haqqani network fighters number in the thousands.
The U.S. shift partly is in recognition that the Pakistanis simply may not have the military capacity to expand operations enough to secure the North Waziristan area, one U.S. official acknowledged.
Pakistani efforts in North Waziristan so far are too small to have a significant impact, said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who headed the Obama administration’s first review of U.S. policy toward Afghan and Pakistan.
“It is mostly show to keep the Americans happy,” he said.
In the wake of Pakistan’s recent flooding, U.S. officials also are concerned the Pakistanis may ratchet back counterterrorism operations as they redeploy troops to help respond to a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
U.S. defense officials now argue the only way to convince Pakistan to take action in North Waziristan is to weaken the Haqqani network so much that Pakistan sees little value in maintaining an alliance with the group—though they acknowledge that will be harder without Pakistani help.
The U.S. military has stepped up its own operations against the Haqqani network since April, and most significantly in the last two weeks, according to military officials. Strikes have significantly reduced the Haqqani network’s ability to mount attacks in Kabul and outside their traditional tribal areas of eastern Afghanistan, said senior U.S. military officials.
In eastern Afghanistan, a task force of elite troops assigned to target the Haqqani network conducted 19 operations in April, 11 in May, 20 in June and 23 in July. The high pace continued in the first week of August with seven operations.
The Haqqanis threatened to disrupt an international conference in Kabul last month, but were not able to make good on the threat.