(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan reportedly is moving to broker a peace deal between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and an al-Qaeda-allied terrorist group with longstanding ties to Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency.
CIA director Leon Panetta on Sunday voiced doubt that the militants were ready to stop fighting and embrace the political process.
Based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district, the group, known as the Haqqani network, has been linked to attacks, including a suicide bombing on a base in Khost last December in which seven CIA agents were killed, and two bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul.
In turn, the network has become a primary target for an escalated campaign of U.S. drone-delivered missile attacks since late last year, most recently on Sunday when a missile strike targeted a house near Miramshah, North Waziristan’s main town, killing at least three people.
Washington for months has been urging Pakistan to expand its military offensive against militants into North Waziristan, to no avail. Pakistan’s military campaign has focused on groups fighting against Islamabad rather than those, like the Haqqani network, targeting U.S. and coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network is one of three key Taliban-linked insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan, the other two being the mainstream faction led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami.
Haqqani was founded by veteran Pashtun fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani, who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. It is led by his son, Sirajuddin, who has a $5-million U.S. reward on his head.
The faction historically has enjoyed strong ISI support, and regional security experts frequently use terms such as “surrogate” and “invaluable strategic asset” to describe its relationship to the Pakistan military.
“Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network is Pakistan’s favorite Taliban leader, and ideally, Kayani would like him to be part of the power-sharing arrangement in Kabul,” the Times of India wrote last March.
The reference was to Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a leader some analysts in the region regard as more powerful than either President Asif Ali Zardari or Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani.
As Karzai seeks to pursue a policy of “reconciliation and reintegration” with those opposition Afghan elements that supposedly are ready to stop fighting and want to join the government, there are growing signs that Pakistan is maneuvering to promote the Haqqani network as one such group.
Following a report to that effect in the New York Times last week, the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera even claimed Sunday that Kayani and the head of the ISI, Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, had engineered a meeting between Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani in recent days.
Although officials in Kabul and Islamabad denied the report, Kayani and Pasha are due to visit Kabul this week, for at least the third time since March. A Pakistani military spokesman described the visit as “routine.”
Karzai’s warming relations with Pakistan come weeks after the forced resignation of two senior Afghan officials deeply suspicious of Pakistan and its ambitions in Afghanistan, and leery of rapprochement with the militant factions.
With former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh out of the way, Karzai can focus on accelerating his reconciliation drive which began several months ago and was endorsed by a national peace “jirga” in Kabul early this month.
Asked in Toronto Sunday about the reports of Pakistan brokering deals between militants and Kabul, President Obama did not refer directly to the Haqqani claims, but said that “conversations between the Afghan government and Pakistani government, building trust between those two governments, is a useful step.”
As was the case in Iraq, Obama said, ultimately “we’re going to have to have a political solution, not simply a military solution” in Afghanistan.
‘They need to be convinced they are going to be defeated’
The stated U.S. conditions for reconciliation in Afghanistan are an end to violence, renunciation of al-Qaeda, and support for the Afghan constitution.
Panetta said earlier Sunday the U.S. had seen “no evidence” that the Haqqani network or other Afghan militant groups “are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society.”
“We’ve seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful,” he said in an interview with ABC News.
Visiting Islamabad last week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Pakistan had an important role to play in brokering talks between the Karzai government and Afghan militant groups.
Hague also said, however, that the British government agreed with its U.S. ally that the Haqqani network was unlikely to abandon its al-Qaeda ties and reconcile with the government in Kabul.
Pakistan’s The News reported Monday that a Haqqani network “commander” had denied the reports about a meeting with Karzai.
“Why he would go to Kabul to meet the U.S. puppet at a time when we have an upper hand in the battlefield?” the paper quoted the unnamed source as saying “from an undisclosed location.”
He said the reports were part of a propaganda effort aimed at trying to create a rift among militant leaders.
“We have made it clear several times that we would not sit for any dialogue until and unless foreign occupying forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan.”
In a recent paper focusing on North Waziristan, Pakistan’s independent Center for Research and Security Studies said groups like the Haqqanis make and break deals whenever it suits them.
“Political blackmail for their own monetary gains or so called ideological objectives remains the most striking hallmark of these militants, bonded by al-Qaeda’s trans-continental idea of jihad that includes hurting the U.S. interests wherever possible,” it said.
“Also, most of these militants have had good working relationship with the Pakistani security establishment, something that has apparently restricted the army from an all-out crackdown against the Haqqanis and his Pakistani affiliates.”
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen met with Kayani at the weekend in Rawalpindi, home to Pakistan’s military headquarters.
Mullen also held talks with Karzai and military officials in Kabul, where he gave assurances that U.S. strategy remained unchanged despite Obama’s decision to replace the U.S. officer leading the war effort, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, with Gen. David Petraeus.