Presidential Debates 2012: Why Obama is Right on War in Afghanistan Strategy

On Monday, President Obama and Governor Romney will finally be forced to speak about the war in Afghanistan and the spill over in Pakistan. President Obama, for his part, has taken serious steps to hinder the Haqqani Network, a terrorist organization that operates with impunity in Waziristan.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

The Obama administration has deliberated for the better part of two years on the benefits and disadvantages of designating the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization. On September 6, the administration, with approval from Congress, finally did the right thing and formally blacklisted the network as a terrorist organization. 

This designation will heighten the network’s international isolation, although they won’t make much of a difference to its main sponsor, the Pakistani intelligence services. The network is responsible for some of the most deadly violence in Afghanistan, including sophisticated attacks on the American and Indian Embassies in Kabul, and is a serious impediment to stability in Afghanistan. 

According to a revealing report by the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point titled “Haqqani Network Financing: The Evolution of an Industry,” the Haqqani Network is “the deadliest and most globally focused faction” of the Taliban.

Formal recognition of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization, while symbolic, is a positive step toward achieving long-term stability in Afghanistan. Not only will sanctions finally clamp down on an organization that is primarily supported by licit and illicit activities, as well as foreign donors in the Gulf, but this move has the potential to further splinter the Taliban and puts the screws to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, which has been routinely disingenuous about its relationship with the network.

However, not everyone has applauded this move. Julian Borger of the Guardian believes that this move is counterproductive to ongoing attempts at peace talks in Afghanistan. After all, Borger argues, how can you reach a political solution with a group that you aren’t allowed to speak with? While it is true that the United States has been pursuing a political settlement and indirect talks with the Taliban for quite some time, these talks have all but stalled, and are routinely hindered by violence from the Haqqani Network. Borger, as well as unnamed officials from the State Department, have suggested that naming the network as a terrorist organization will put further strain on an all but frayed relationship between the United States and Pakistan. This may indeed be the case, but the benefits of designating the network as a terrorist organization outweigh the risks articulated by Borger and many others.

The Haqqani Network may be perpetually creating instability in order to ensure they continually profit—literally. In fact, the CTC argues that the leaders of the network have a “financial disincentive” to seeking a negotiated settlement to end the conflict. The network is a “mafia-style” hybrid terrorist-criminal network and they profit from activity that thrives in a state continued of instability. The network needs money to continue its operations, but it also needs the conflict to turn a profit. This cyclical pattern will not end until the financial benefit is taken away from the network.

The CTC argues that the tremendous financial capacity the Haqqani Network has established is their defining factor and real advantage. Sanctions are the only effective way to clamp down on the revenue streams that keep this organization alive. As outlined in the CTC report, the Haqqanis have evolved into an adept, business-like organization with revenue in “import-export, transport, real estate, and construction” not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but in the Gulf as well. These sanctions will curtail business transactions, fundraising in the Gulf and elsewhere, and will hinder illicit activities as well.

The Obama administration has, until this point, continually sought the destruction of this group through drone strikes. The CTC reports that in the past, after high-level leaders in the group were captured or killed, there was “considerable disarray” within the Haqqani Network. In late August, a drone strike allegedly killed Badruddin Haqqani, a top operational commander of the network and son of its founder, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Badruddin’s death will most likely result in “reduced capacity” for the network. The network is highly centralized group, organized around the Haqqani clan, and operating much like a mafia operation. Coupled with sanctions, Baddruddin’s death will give the Pakistani government a better chance of rooting out the network once and for all.

The Pakistani government, for their part, has called the designation an “internal American issue” and has otherwise been reserved about this latest development. The Obama administration is putting a clear choice before Pakistan. On one hand, the Pakistani government can continue to let the Haqqani Network operate with impunity and allow the ISI to use the network as its own “veritable arm,” as described by Admiral Mike Mullen.

Hopefully, the Pakistani government will respond to the added pressure from the United States and curtail the Haqqani Network’s operations. Perhaps an enfeebled network, and ipso facto a weaker Taliban, will enhance stability in Afghanistan at the beginning of the next fighting season and will push more of these fighters to disarm individually. But even if the terrorist designation has only a small impact, it is likely to significantly erode the network’s ability to raise money and operate its many financial interests. As the CTC points out, the network is “unlikely” to survive if the state turned against them. Now, the United States will wait and see if Pakistani government factions will take this opportunity to irreparably damage the Haqqani Network before coalition withdrawal in 2014.

This article was first published by The Century Foundation.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.