A 1998 photo of Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani militant network,… (Mohammed Riaz, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The State Department on Friday designated Pakistan's Haqqani network a foreign terrorist organization, opening the way for the use of new tools to thwart a complex enemy that has attacked American troops and Afghan civilians while operating much like an organized crime family.
The move by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came after lengthy debate within the Obama administration, with some officials worried that the designation would make it harder to negotiate a peace settlement with the Haqqanis and their Taliban allies. But negotiations have gone nowhere, and the CIA has been launching drone strikes at Haqqani targets, including an attack last month that killed Badruddin Haqqani, son of the group's leader and a member of its governing council.
"This designation could meaningfully impair the international fundraising and business efforts that allow the Haqqanis to fund their terrorist attacks, foreign fighter training and radicalization programs," said Jeffrey Dressler, an expert on the Haqqanis at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
A senior administration official, who declined to be quoted by name when speaking about a sensitive diplomatic matter, said the terrorist designation did not prohibit American officials from talking with the Haqqanis, a clan of Afghan Pashtun warlords based in Pakistan's tribal areas who operate across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials remain skeptical of Washington's commitment to peace talks, and designating the network as a terrorist organization will make negotiations less likely, said a Pakistani intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Haqqanis agree, senior commanders in the group told the Reuters news service.
"It means the United States is not sincere in their talks," an unnamed Haqqani commander was quoted as saying. "They are on the one hand claiming to look for a political solution to the Afghan issue while on the other they are declaring us terrorists."
Another commander said the move would mean hardship for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in 2009 and is being held by the militants.
The decision nonetheless drew praise from members of both parties in Congress, which had passed legislation requiring that the decision be made by Sunday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Haqqanis were responsible for the death or injury of more than 1,300 U.S. troops and had orchestrated terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including suicide bombings and assassinations.
"This is a critical step that clears the path for the United States to begin to put a chokehold on the network's finances," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
That may not be easy. Rogers, who investigated the Chicago mafia as an FBI agent, has joined others in describing the Haqqanis as operating like a crime family, with illicit businesses in smuggling and drugs that would be difficult to sanction. But, like the mafia, the network also has legitimate businesses, including in real estate, construction and autos.
The terrorist designation allows the U.S. to pressure companies or countries to stop doing business with the Haqqanis.
U.S. officials have long said that elements of Pakistan's government support the network. Adm. Mike Mullen, shortly before he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last year that the Haqqanis were a "virtual arm" of Pakistani intelligence.
The terrorist designation comes at a particularly sensitive time in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan: Both sides are building on the rapprochement achieved with the July reopening of Afghanistan-bound NATO supply routes through Pakistan. The routes had been shut down for seven months over a misunderstanding in which U.S. airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November.
Though talk has resurfaced in Pakistan of a possible military offensive in the Haqqani strongholds in the North Waziristan tribal area, most analysts doubt that the Pakistani military will attack the network, which has never trained its sights on Pakistani targets.
The network's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, organized mujahedin fighters against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At the time, he had fostered ties with Pakistani intelligence and the CIA.
Now believed to be in his late 50s, Haqqani has handed control to his son Sirajuddin. Analysts believe the Haqqanis have a fighting force of about 5,000 that splits its time between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. military officials have said that Sirajuddin Haqqani is sympathetic to Al Qaeda's goals of attacking the West.
Dilanian reported from Washington and Rodriguez from Islamabad, Pakistan.