Clear and Present Danger: The Haqqani Network

Will troop withdrawal leave a vacuum rapidly filled by the march of the Haqqani network?
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He might be enthusiastically eying the door marked 'retirement' but his pace hasn't slowed. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has just popped into Afghanistan and Pakistan for a quick whip round the troops and some tough talking. While on the border with Pakistan he cautioned -- strongly -- that the biggest threat to regional stability now is the Haqqani network. He had talks with Pakistan senior officials about tightening up the noose -- currently set at "loose and limp" to strangulation point.

While the NATO forces have significantly chipped into the Taliban ranks this past year, it's not going to be easy getting the Haqqani network to its death throes. The network -- reliably thought to be based in Waziristan in Pakistan -- has much of the border regions of Af-Pak tied up, and made a true art form out of bloody-minded thuggery, extortion, murder, and bastardry. Its urban cohort, the Kabul Attack Network, is crammed full of ex-policemen and Afghan National Army officers, along with militants, aspiring warlords and politicians, rat-cunning strategists, cannon fodder, yahoos and ratbags.

Intelligence has been upped on Haqqani, the Taliban and the KAN, though not enough to thwart the June 28 Intercontinental Hotel bombing or the May 18 suicide attack on a Kabul military hospital. Both attacks were carried out by men in military uniforms.

It appears that despite a reputation for a laissez-faire freewheeling attitude, Afghanistan intelligence sources have thwarted several potential deadly attacks recently. A foiled plot to blow up the Kabul airport was widely reported, though rumored planned attacks on the ISAF headquarters and a government ministry were less widely aired. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the discovery of a cache of weapons and uniforms linked to the Kabul airport plot suggest either midnight stealth into snoozing soldier's dorms, or more realistically, extensive and corrosive infiltration.

Bad for NATO forces and bad for Afghanistan. Afghan security forces have taken the "security lead" in a number of relatively stable regions. Insurgents are not only stepping up their attacks on these previously peaceful areas but are also targeting Afghan forces in a bid to show that government and military can't maintain security and a stable rule of law.

Late last month, an army officer, Gul Mohammad, who was in charge of security at "pivotal" Kabul checkpoints, was arrested. He's been charged with a laundry list of crimes -- from passing classified information "to Pakistan" and possessing Iranian-made explosives, to being a member or associate of the Taliban and plotting the suicide attacks on ISAF and the ministry.

Across the border, Pakistan continues to shy away from routing out the terrorist networks from the safe havens. Unwilling? Unable? Uninterested? Whatever, it remains a critical point of contention within the US-Pakistan relationship, with Pakistan consistently citing its own timetable and strategic interests.

Admiral Mullen said he was confident that Afghan security forces would increase in size and strength and continue to push the variety of active insurgents into retreat. He also mentioned that he seemed much more impatient that the Pakistanis to see this task completed. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for his part, has been talking about possible negotiations and taking meetings with the Haqqani crowd. War always ends with negotiation but Karzai seems to be talking a big game, with no one tuning into his often loopy frequency.

Thirty-three thousand of the additional American surge troops are still on track to begin withdrawing from the country this summer, according to Admiral Mullen. Although NATO has been chest-beating lately about its routing of Taliban forces, darkly there has always been concern that the Haqqani network is much more wily, dug-in and dangerous. Admiral Mullen aired those concerns on his trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Will troop withdrawal leave a vacuum rapidly filled by the march of the Haqqani network?

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