it is a commonly held view that the United States is “one major attack” away from unilateral action against Pakistan – diplomatically or perhaps even militarily, one senior official said.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Grinning for the camera, the suicide bomber fondly patted his truckload of explosives. “We will defeat these crusader pigs as they have invaded our land,” he declared as he revved the engine.
The camera followed the truck to an American base in southern Afghanistan, where it exploded with a tangerine dust-framed fireball that punched a hole in the perimeter wall. Other suicide bombers leapt from a second vehicle and swarmed through the breach. The crackle and boom of violence filled the air.
The video, documenting a June 1 assault on Camp Salerno near the border with Pakistan, was released in the past week as a publicity blitz by the group behind the attack: the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate whose leaders shelter in Pakistan.
Even as the United States begins a large-scale troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Salerno attack, acknowledged at the time only in terse official statements, and others like it have cemented the Haqqani network’s standing as the most ominous threat to the fragile American-Pakistani relationship, officials from both countries say.
The two countries are just getting back on track, after months of grueling negotiations that finally reopened NATO supply routes through Pakistan. Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Zahir ul-Islam, is scheduled to arrive in Washington this week for talks with the Central Intelligence Agency, in an early sign of a new reconciliation.
But the relationship still has a tinderbox quality, riven by differences over C.I.A. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the Afghan war and, most contentiously, the Haqqani network. The arguments are well worn: American officials say the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency is covertly aiding the insurgents; Pakistani officials deny the accusation and contend the Obama administration is deflecting attention from its own failings in Afghanistan.
But a new boldness from the Haqqanis that aims at mass American casualties, combined with simmering political tension, has reduced the room for ambiguity between the two countries. Inside the administration, it is a commonly held view that the United States is “one major attack” away from unilateral action against Pakistan – diplomatically or perhaps even militarily, one senior official said.
“If 50 U.S. troops were blown to smithereens by the Haqqanis, or they penetrated the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and killed several diplomats – that would be the game changer,” he said.
American officials recently considered what that could mean. Days after the Salerno attack, the White House held a series of interagency meetings to weigh its options in the event of a major success by the Haqqanis against American troops.
Salerno had come uncomfortably close. Although just two Americans were killed, the attackers had penetrated the defenses of a major base to within yards of a dining hall used by hundreds of soldiers.
The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, according to a senior official who was briefed on the deliberations – everything from withdrawing the Islamabad ambassador, to a flurry of intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt, to American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the same area.
“We looked at the A to Z of how to get the Pakistanis’ attention,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as did other American and Pakistani officials interviewed about the issue.
Yet there were no easy answers. Officials concluded that most options ran the risk of setting off a wider conflict with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military. “It came down to the fact that there wasn’t much we could do,” the official said. Other senior officials confirmed the broad details of his account; many noted that most contingency plans are never transformed into actions.
At the heart of the conundrum is the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, and its new chief, General Islam.
He is a largely unknown quantity in Washington, and much of this week’s trip is likely to focus on relationship building with American officials, including the director of the C.I.A., David H. Petraeus. But the tone has already been set by Congress: in the past month, both the House and the Senate have passed bills that urge Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to designate the Haqqani network a “foreign terrorist organization.”
“The Haqqani network is engaged in a reign of terror,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Now is the time for action, not simply paperwork and talk.”
The Haqqanis’ formidable reputation comes from a series of “swarm” attacks that have struck at American efforts to ensure a smooth and public transition of power to President Hamid Karzai by the end of 2014. Since 2008, Haqqani suicide attackers have struck the Indian Embassy, five-star hotels and restaurants and, last September, the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the American Embassy.
The headlines created by such violence are disproportionate to their military significance: Haqqani operations account for one-tenth of the attacks on ISAF troops, and perhaps 15 percent of casualties, senior American officials estimate. Other countries do not even consider the Haqqanis to be the most dangerous group sheltering in Pakistan, a mantle usually awarded to the more ideologically driven Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.
Yet their success is rooted in the sanctuary enjoyed by Haqqani leadership in North Waziristan, where, at the very least, they are unmolested by the Pakistani military.
That relationship stretches to the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s, when the ISI funneled C.I.A. money and weapons to Haqqani fighters. The Pakistani agency continued to send funds during the 1990s, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Today, the ISI admits that it maintains regular contact with the Haqqanis, but denies providing operational support. “Doesn’t the C.I.A. have contacts with the people it is fighting?” said a senior ISI official. “In intelligence work, you need to ingress to find out what the other side is doing.”
American and other Western officials, citing intelligence reports, say the ISI and the Haqqanis do more than just talk. Pakistani intelligence allows Haqqani operatives to run legitimate businesses in Pakistan, facilitates their travel to Persian Gulf states, and has continued to donate money. Senior Haqqani figures own houses in the capital, Islamabad, where their relatives live unmolested.
A Pakistani expert on organized crime, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Said Jan ‘Abd al-Salam, a Haqqani supporter listed as a terrorist financier by the American government, lived in Islamabad’s upmarket F7 neighborhood for periods of 2008 and 2009. A Western diplomat said he had seen credible reports that the group’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, dined openly in a city center restaurant this year.
But, officials and some analysts caution, such links do not amount to ISI support for attacks on Americans. They may point to something more subtle: a containment policy that is devised to prevent Haqqani violence inside Pakistan, all the while providing a strategic card to help influence the future of Afghanistan.
“We think the Haqqani network has an ongoing relationship with the ISI,” a senior Obama administration official said. “But I am not convinced there is a command-and-control relationship between the ISI and those attacks.”
One difficulty in determining the truth is the fragmentary nature of Western intelligence: a mosaic of satellite images, intercepted phone calls and human intelligence. “It’s like on the other side of that door there’s a party going on,” said the senior administration official, pointing to his office door. “You’re trying to find out what’s going on by peeping through the keyhole, or holding a glass to the door. But you only get pieces.”
In many ways, the Haqqanis are their own masters. Although they pledge allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, they enjoy financial autonomy thanks to a tribal crime empire based on extortion, kidnapping and smuggling. They draw operational support from other groups sheltering in Waziristan, including Al Qaeda.
In that sense, several officials said, the ISI may be serving the Haqqani agenda more than the other way around. “Their interests are not always aligned,” said an American intelligence official who tracks the Haqqanis closely.
American efforts to kill Haqqani leaders with C.I.A. drone strikes in Waziristan and Afghanistan have met with little success, two senior officials said, partly because Sirajuddin Haqqani surrounds himself with civilians – often women and children – at his base in the town of Miram Shah.
The United States has long pressured Pakistan to attack the Haqqanis in North Waziristan, but the military says its forces are overstretched. “It’s not that we are unwilling to go against them; we just don’t have the resources,” the ISI official said.
But after the Salerno attack in June, the army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, privately told American officials he would launch a three-phase military operation against the Haqqanis over the coming 12 months.
Most American officials, however, say they are not counting on that promise. One remarked with a sardonic touch, “This is the most delayed campaign in the history of modern warfare.”
Declan Walsh reported from Islamabad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud contributed reporting.