Courtesy Reuters

Why Branding the Haqqanis Terrorists Was a Mistake

The Downsides of Making Policy During a Campaign

Last week, the Obama administration designated the Haqqani network as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The move seems reasonable. For one, the Haqqanis are responsible for some of the most heinous terrorist attacks on Americans in Afghanistan. In July, the U.S. Congress gave Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a September 9 deadline to either add the group to the FTO list or explain her rationale for not doing so -- a potential election-year land mine.

The listing, however, is more about appearances than outcomes. As I wrote last year ("Why the Haqqani Network Is Not on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations List"), most of the network's senior members are already individually sanctioned under the Specially Designated Global Terrorist designation, which means that Treasury has long had the power to go after the assets of most of them. The FTO label simply gives Treasury the additional option of sanctioning the organization as a whole, including those who provide material support or resources to its members.

In this case, that includes some surprising (and not-so-surprising) bedfellows. Over the last few years, the Haqqanis have morphed into a blatantly criminal organization, profiting from the war through smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, and legal and illegal businesses on both sides of the Durand line. The group still raises money from wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf, but its tentacles now also reach into Pakistan's armed forces and its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, in addition to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration. The United States is also indirectly involved: in 2011, The New York Times reported that U.S. Agency for International Development contractors paid almost a million dollars in protection money to build the Gardez-Khost road in southeastern Afghanistan, which is still unfinished. Some of that funding went to the Haqqanis.

This wrinkle begs the question of how the United States wants to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. If economic sanctions are the vital tool, the United States should have long ago added Pakistan to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list -- a much more meaningful signal. The United States has not done so, however, because after the withdrawal of coalition forces, stability in Afghanistan and in the region as a whole will depend on Pakistani cooperation. Also for this reason, the United States might be reluctant to use the FTO listing to interrupt aid going to Afghan officials or the Pakistan government, even if U.S. money can be tracked through them to the Haqqanis.  

In addition, if ending the war involves a negotiated peace accord, it will have to include not only the Taliban but the Haqqanis, as they will be power brokers in any postwar Afghanistan. The brutal Haqqanis have shown no interest whatsoever in talks, but if a peace accord involves paying them off in any way, then the U.S. government might find itself subject to its own sanctions. Adding the Haqqanis to the FTO list is big on symbolism but slim on substance -- a campaign gambit that makes sense now but might complicate things in the future for whichever U.S. president is charged with bringing the war to a close.

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