By now a pattern has emerged in President Obama’s foreign policy: Inclined to “lead from behind,” the cool, unexcitable and cerebral chief executive normally hesitates and agonizes before taking decisive action, then, when pushed to do so by allies, aides, or by Congress, or all three, he claims credit for having been tough all along. The mission to kill Osama bin Laden was an exception–the president was, by all indicators, more unwavering than his senior advisers–but the decision to intervene in Libya certainly falls into this category as does the decision to keep Guantanamo open and the decision to impose a tough new round of sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil industry. The latter sanctions were compelled by virtually unanimous votes of Congress after the president spent the first three years of his administration trying to reach out to Tehran.
Now the pattern is being repeated with regard to the Haqqani Network. For the past two years, despite strong arguments to do so from both U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Afghanistan, the administration has refused to add the Haqqani Network to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, presumably for fear of offending Pakistan which provides sanctuary and other support to the Haqqanis. Then in early August Congress passed legislation giving the administration 30 days to either list the Haqqanis or explain why not. And lo and behold the White House has finally decided to designate the Haqqanis, which will make it easier to go after that organization’s finances.
There are conflicting reports about whether Badruddin Haqqani, a senior commander in the Haqqani network founded by his father Jalaluddin and led by his elder brother Sirajuddin, has been killed in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan. Afghan and Pakistani intelligence officials believe he is dead, and so does at least one Taliban commander, but another Taliban spokesman denies it. We will see if there is more definitive evidence forthcoming soon.
If he is indeed dead, it is a small but significant victory against the most malign terrorist organization operating in Afghanistan–a group responsible for the worst attacks in Kabul itself. The Long War Journal reports: “Badruddin was also one of several handlers for the fighters involved in the June 28, 2011 assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Badruddin was recorded while he issued instructions to one of the fighters, and was heard laughing during the attack that killed 11 civilians and two Afghan policemen as well as nine members of the attack team.”
Max Boot is correct to call for the designation of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group, but he does not go far enough in sketching out the implications. The reason why the State Department has not pushed forward with the designation is not only because U.S. diplomats want to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis, but because designating the Haqqanis would make it very difficult to avoid listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.
The fact that the Haqqani Network is a terrorist group is irrefutable. The White House may want to drag its feet in pursuit of some diplomatic fiction, but the Congress may not be so tolerant. Already, there is a bill in the House calling for the designation. It may not be such a long shot: Remember, the White House opposed further sanctions on Iran, but the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them anyway. Only after they showed some positive effect did the White House retroactively claim credit.
Jeff Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War–one of the best Afghanistan analysts out there–has an excellent question in this Weekly Standard article: Why hasn’t the administration designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization?
There is no legitimate reason to avoid this designation for a group that, according to the testimony of administration officials, has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Once it is designated, that will allow the U.S. and other governments to more actively go after its finances, leaders, and supporters. It appeared that designation–which is favored by both U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–was a done deal last year, but it still hasn’t happened, apparently because the State Department wants to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis.
Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.
This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.
I respectfully dissent from the conclusion reached by some U.S. officials and outside analysts who claim to see Sunday’s assaults in Afghanistan as a show of strength and not weakness by the insurgency. No question there was an intelligence failure in not anticipating and preventing the attack. But no security force, no matter how formidable, can possibly stop every terrorist attack before it happens. Afghan and coalition forces have disrupted countless Haqqani attempts to attack Kabul in the past. Indeed, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack in the capital since September. But no defense can be full-proof.
It is hardly a sign of insurgent strength that some 40 Haqqani operatives managed to strike a series of Afghan and coalition targets in Kabul and a few other sites in eastern Afghanistan. It is not all that difficult to smuggle AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades into Kabul–but then it’s not so difficult to smuggle such weapons into the United States either. But once again, as in September, the insurgents had to stage their attacks from abandoned buildings, which suggests they do not have too much support in the capital. Certainly they were not able to infiltrate the parliament or other targets–they were not even able to penetrate the perimeter as far as I can tell. And Afghan forces responded quickly, managing to kill almost all the attackers while limiting civilian casualties.
“This is our new tactic and is indicative of our strength.”
So said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid about Sunday’s insurgent attacks in Kabul and several other locations around Afghanistan. He was more right than he intended, for the attacks showed the Taliban’s weakness rather than their strength. For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible.
David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.
Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.