Terrorist Designation Complicates the Fight against the Haqqanis

  • Oct 4, 2012

    Last month, the U.S. State Department formally designated the Pakistan-based Haqqani network a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), concluding more than a year of deliberation within the Obama administration on whether or not to do so. The move came amid vocal public debate in the United States and sharp prodding by the Congress. Meanwhile, as Pakistan quietly prepares to launch a military offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area at U.S. urging, Pakistani officials have for the past month been studiously silent about what, if anything, the designation will mean on the ground.

    The debate in the United States was not about whether the group meets the criteria for designation—it clearly does. FTO designation requires only that the organization be foreign, that it “engages in terrorist activity,” and that it thereby poses a threat to the United States or to U.S. nationals. The Haqqani network, in addition to having close ties to the Taliban, has been increasingly associated with high-profile terrorist attacks on U.S. nationals in Afghanistan, including last September’s siege of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Haqqani network’s rising prominence as one of Afghanistan’s “most dangerous” insurgent groups—over a period when the Taliban still accounted for the vast majority of coalition and civilian casualties in the country—has been accompanied by accelerated U.S. efforts to seek a negotiated settlement with the Taliban in advance of the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by 2014 (even as hopes for such a settlement seem to be fading).

    Yet the relevant law does not require a designation for all groups that meet the criteria. FTO designation is deliberately left to the discretion of the secretary of state and reflects his or her judgment about the most appropriate way to mitigate a given threat. As a report by the Congressional Research Service explains, “There may be competing priorities in dealing with a group, such as a desire to engage a group in negotiations or to use the FTO naming as leverage for another foreign policy aim.” The Taliban’s continuing absence from the FTO list, despite also meeting the criteria, is one reflection of these competing priorities.

    The key question then is whether designation is the appropriate tool to apply given the priorities in this case. The case for designation relies largely on its expected financial effects on the Haqqanis; on the diplomatic pressure the designation might exert on Pakistan to oppose the network more vigorously; and finally on the perceived need for the United States to use “all available tools” to curtail the group’s activities. In reality, however, designation restricts the tools available, and its financial, diplomatic, and military effects on the ground will be at best unhelpful and at worst counterproductive.

    Financial effects. Legally speaking, FTO designation freezes the assets of the targeted group and makes it a crime to provide support to it. Proponents of designation have argued that the Haqqanis’ organized crime wealth is the key to the group’s reach and lethality and hence that targeting the network requires targeting its finances. But designation affects only finances “in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” There is no evidence that the Haqqanis rely at all on U.S. individuals or financial institutions, and existing U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against senior Haqqani commanders have had no noticeable impact. The Haqqanis’ biggest source of profit, local racketeering and extortion, lies outside the reach of U.S. law, and the group moves money chiefly through informal financial networks similarly unaffected by the designation.

    Diplomatic effects. It is unclear whether the Haqqanis would have been willing to negotiate a settlement with the United States, but backdoor talks between the United States and the Haqqanis over the past year indicate that there might have been some common ground. Designation likely forecloses the possibility of finding it, however. As for U.S.-Pakistan relations more generally, both sides have taken pains to underplay the impact of the move, but it is a relationship that can ill afford further strain.
    Pakistan’s silence on the matter has been noticeable and puzzling. Some have suggested it fears that objecting to the designation would be tantamount to admission of support. Pakistan may also be trying to avoid drawing attention to its planned military operation in North Waziristan. Or perhaps the designation is simply viewed as unimportant in light of the issues highlighted above. U.S. officials, for their part, gave almost immediate public assurances that no moves are afoot to designate Pakistan itself a state sponsor of terrorism, notwithstanding U.S. officials’ prior public and well-founded accusations that the Haqqani network enjoys the support of Pakistani intelligence.

    Military effects. As for Pakistan’s semi-secret planned military operation in North Waziristan, where both the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban are thought to be based, the designation can only bode ill. While the Pakistani military could have been persuaded to go after the Pakistani Taliban, which directly threatens Pakistan itself, its relationship with the Haqqani network is much more complex. The prospect of fighting a two-front war, one front almost purely on behalf of the United States, will make the Pakistani national security apparatus think twice about launching the operation at all.

    The State Department’s FTO list can be a useful foreign policy tool in some circumstances. But adding the Haqqani network was the wrong move given the underlying dynamics and most likely effects. Better than employing all available tools against the Haqqanis would be employing the most useful ones, and this designation will likely prove less than useful.

    Sadika Hameed is a fellow with the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kathy Gilsinan is a research intern with the CSIS Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.