Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Kabul, — Prospects for an effort by Pakistan to broker a reconciliation between the government of neighboring Afghanistan and a violent wing of the Afghan Taliban depend on overcoming a major obstacle: severing long-standing relations between the militant group and Al Qaeda.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Pakistan has begun trying to seed a rapprochement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Haqqani network, a branch of the Afghan Taliban that uses Pakistan to launch attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.
Driving Pakistan's effort is a desire to increase its influence over the government in Kabul and diminish any future role its archrival to the east, India, may have there once the U.S. begins pulling troops out, a withdrawal scheduled to start next summer.
The U.S. hopes that a combination of military pressure and inducements will entice some rank-and-file Taliban fighters to come over to the government side, but it has been cautious about Karzai's plans to reach out to Taliban commanders. It is likely to resist any deal Pakistan brokers in which the Haqqani network does not break ties with Al Qaeda, which date to the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan two decades ago.
In the meantime, the U.S. has targeted the organization's hideouts in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan with drone strikes. Military officials also say they have taken the initiative against Haqqani fighters on the ground in eastern Afghanistan.
Experts say both Pakistan and Afghanistan realize that breaking the Haqqani network's ties with Al Qaeda is a prerequisite to any deal. They question whether it would ever happen.
Amir Rana, one of Pakistan's leading analysts on militant groups, said it's not possible for many militant groups, including the Haqqani network, to completely separate from Al Qaeda.
"What the Haqqani network and the other Taliban groups can offer is a guarantee that they will influence Al Qaeda to not attack U.S. or NATO forces, and a guarantee that their soil would not be used in a terrorist attack against the West," he said. "This is the maximum concession that the Taliban can offer."
Numbering in the thousands of fighters, the Haqqani network has a strong relationship with Pakistan's military and intelligence community that stretches 30 years, back to the time when Pashtun warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani organized mujahedin fighters against Soviet troops in the 1980s. Haqqani has now delegated authority over his network of fighters to his son, Sirajuddin.
The group moves freely between Afghanistan's eastern provinces and its headquarters in North Waziristan, where it has been left untouched by Pakistan's military. Experts believe the Haqqani network continues to provide Al Qaeda leaders and commanders sanctuary there.
U.S. leaders have frequently urged Pakistan to launch an offensive against Haqqani hideouts, recently backing those entreaties with evidence that the network was behind major attacks in Kabul and at Bagram air base, the U.S. facility north of the capital. The government in Islamabad, meanwhile, has brushed aside those demands, arguing that its forces are overstretched by extensive military operations against Taliban strongholds in surrounding tribal areas.
Analysts and former Pakistani military commanders, however, say the real reason that Islamabad has avoided military action against the Haqqani network is that it sees the group and other Afghan Taliban elements as a useful hedge against India's rapidly growing interests in Afghanistan.
Haqqani leaders have yet to signal whether they are interested in starting talks with Karzai's government.
In a report issued Monday, Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research organization, said the Haqqani group's ties to Al Qaeda were much closer than those of many other Taliban groups, and he expressed doubt that they could be broken.
"Any negotiated settlement with the Haqqanis threatens to undermine the raison d'etre for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan over the past decade," Dressler wrote. But he and other military analysts said the Haqqani network appears to have been hit hard by recent military operations, potentially undercutting the militants' ability to launch attacks in Kabul.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week" program Sunday, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said the U.S. has seen no evidence that the Taliban, the Haqqani network or any other insurgent group is "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 [Afghan] society."
Up until recently, Karzai has been cool to Pakistani initiatives, as well. But in recent weeks he reversed course.