(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry said in New Delhi Tuesday that Pakistan in recent months has been acting “authoritatively” against strongholds of the Haqqani network (HQN), arguably the region’s most effective terrorist group.
“In recent weeks and months, [the Pakistanis] have been moving much more authoritatively in the western part of the country on the strongholds of the Haqqani network,” Kerry said in a joint press appearance with his Indian counterpart.
Less than a month ago, however, the Pentagon confirmed that it had withheld $300 million in military reimbursement funds to Islamabad, after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter decided against certifying to Congress that the Pakistanis had “taken sufficient action” against the HQN.
Pakistan, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has long been accused of colluding with regional terrorist outfits, including the HQN, a Taliban faction with its stronghold in Pakistan’s North Waziristan.
(A 2010 Defense Intelligence Agency cable, declassified last April, claimed that the ISI paid the HQN $200,000 to carry out a suicide bombing at a U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan in late 2009, in which seven CIA employees were killed.)
Since 2001, Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S. aid, including some $14 billion in “Coalition Support Funds” – reimbursements for counterterrorism efforts.
Frustration over Pakistan’s failure to crack down on the HQN – a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) since 2012 – prompted efforts in Congress in recent years to make some of the substantial U.S. aid to the country conditional on a change of policy on its part.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 withheld $350 million unless the defense secretary certified that Pakistan was continuing operations “contributing to significantly disrupting the safe haven and freedom of movement of the Haqqani network,” acting to prevent the group from using North Waziristan as a safe haven, and restricting movements of HQN militants along the border with Afghanistan.
The NDAA for FY 2017 proposes an even bigger aid cut – $450 million. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation, arguing that, while it shares lawmakers’ concerns about the HQN and “continue[s] to engage with Pakistan at the highest levels” about acting against the group,” the restriction “would unnecessarily complicate progress in our bilateral relationship on this issue.”
In his comments in New Delhi, Kerry said he had spoken recently to Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief of staff about the need for Pakistan to “deprive any [terrorist] group of sanctuary.”
“It is well known that the Haqqani network and others have operated out of the western part of the country,” Kerry said, adding that there were similar concerns regarding Laskhar e-Toiba (LeT), another U.S.-designated FTO, which carried out a dramatic terror attack in Mumbai in 2008, in which six Americans were among the 166 victims.
“It is vital that Pakistan join with other nations in tackling this challenge,” Kerry said. “And in fairness, in recent weeks and months, they have been moving much more authoritatively in the western part of the country on the strongholds of the Haqqani network, and I think recently have made difficult decisions in order to carry that elsewhere.”
At a State Department briefing, a reporter suggested that Kerry and the Pentagon appeared not to be “on the same page” when it came to Pakistan’s actions against the HQN.
Spokesman John Kirby disputed that, saying he was unaware of “any dissonance” on the issue.
“There is a constant conversation that we are having with our Pakistani partners about the threat posed by Haqqani and by other extremist groups there in the region and certainly operating inside Pakistan,” he said.
“And we make these decisions routinely and they’re based on active, fluid, dynamic conversations that we have with Pakistani leaders. I don’t know of any difference [between State and Defense],” Kirby added. “I think the United States government is viewing this very much all in the same light.”
In early August, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. would not send $300 million in Coalition Support Funds to Pakistan, “because the secretary [Carter] has not yet certified that Pakistan has taken sufficient action against the Haqqani network.”
Last week Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook confirmed that, saying that “there was a deadline in terms of whether or not to transfer that money or to use that money in other ways, and it was determined that at this moment in time, it was best to reprogram that money in another direction.”
‘Most lethal … most competent terrorist organization’
The Haqqani network was founded by a veteran anti-Soviet mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, and is now led by his son, Sirajuddin, who has a $10 million dollar U.S. reward on his head and was named earlier this year as one of two new deputy leaders of the Taliban.
During a Pentagon press briefing from Kabul last May, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland spoke at some length about the dangers posed by the HQN – a group which he said historically had been “the most lethal and, frankly, the most competent terrorist organization in this area,” and been responsible for some of the most high-profile terrorist attacks in Afghan cities.
“They don’t appear to have any qualms or compunctions about, you know, really killing innocent children, men, women and just setting off these bombs as we saw with this Kabul high-profile attack a few weeks ago.”
Asked how aggressively the Pakistani military had been targeting the HQN, Cleveland deferred the question, saying his focus was on the Afghan side of the border
“That said, of course, we still believe that the Pakistanis have a huge role in being in the success of certainly Afghanistan and this region,” he added. “And so we absolutely do believe that the Pakistanis, you know, need to be engaging and targeting any of these terrorist organizations.”
Pressed on the matter, Cleveland said there was no doubt the HQN leadership was historically based in Pakistan’s tribal belt and “they’ve been able to conduct operations from there.”
“But it really is up for the Pakistanis, as has been stated several times, to be able to take some type of action against it.”
As long ago as January last year, Kerry said during a visit to Islamabad that he had been given assurances the authorities would act against “all” terror groups, including the HQN and LeT.
Asked at the time whether the administration was confident that Pakistan would do so, he replied, “there is a publicly-stated commitment and decision that there will not be a distinction between good or bad folks who fit into one terrorist category or another.”
“All terrorism is unacceptable,” Kerry added. “The proof will be in the actions that are taken more fully over the course of the next weeks.”