WASHINGTON - The Obama administration faces a weekend deadline to decide whether the Pakistan-based Haqqani network should be declared a terrorist organization, a complicated political decision as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and pushes for a reconciliation pact to end more than a decade of warfare.
Enraged by a string of high-profile attacks on U.S. and NATO troops, Congress has ordered Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to give her verdict by Sunday. U.S. officials say there are disagreements within the administration over what to decide.
The U.S. already has placed sanctions on many Haqqani leaders and is targeting its members militarily but has held back from formally designating the al-Qaida-linked network a terrorist group amid concerns about hampering peace efforts in Afghanistan and U.S. relations with Pakistan.
Clinton, who is winding up a six-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific, was expected to send her report on the Haqqanis to Congress on Friday and announce her decision.
The U.S. long has branded the Haqqanis among the biggest threats to American and allied forces in Afghanistan, and to Afghanistan's long-term stability. A subsidiary of the Taliban, it is based in northern Pakistan but crosses the border to launch attacks, including a rocket-propelled grenade assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO compound in Kabul in September.
But the group's increasingly prominent role in the insurgency and its close links to Pakistan's intelligence service complicate matters.
The Obama administration has been trying to coax Afghanistan's fighting groups into peace talks, offering the prospect of a Qatar-based political office for insurgents and even the transfer of several prisoners being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Negotiations have been dormant for months, and the Haqqanis have been among the least interested in talking.
The group also has enjoyed a close relationship with Pakistan. The U.S. and its often reluctant counterterrorism ally have been at loggerheads over the Haqqanis for years, with Washington accusing Islamabad of giving the network a free hand in the remote North Waziristan region and even providing it with some logistical support.
Pakistan says that its forces are stretched thin in fighting an insurgency that already has killed more than 30,000 people and that it cannot also take on the Haqqanis. Many analysts attribute the military's reluctance to its historical ties to the Haqqani network's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and an assessment that the group can be an important ally in Afghanistan after U.S. forces withdraw in 2014.
Congress wants action. In July, it set a deadline to prod the Obama administration into imposing blanket sanctions on the group by designating it a foreign terrorist organization. If Clinton and other officials decide to withhold the designation, they must explain why.
U.S. officials cited disagreements about the designation. Some favor the designation, while others worry that it would elevate the Haqqanis from their current status as an amorphous, tribal movement. That could end up hurting counterterrorism efforts by increasing their appeal among would-be jihadists.
One option under consideration was that the State Department would announce its intention to declare the Haqqani network as a terrorist body, while leaving more time for all the legal hurdles involved in making such a designation. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential evaluations.
Clinton said last week she'd meet her reporting obligations, without saying in which direction she would decide. But she stressed that the administration was pressuring the Haqqanis.
"We are drying up their resources, we are targeting their military and intelligence personnel and we are pressing the Pakistanis to step up their own efforts," Clinton said.
Last month, the U.S. scored a major counterterror success when an unmanned drone strike in Pakistan near the Afghan border killed one of Jalaluddin Haqqani's sons, Badruddin.
Badruddin was considered a vital part of the Haqqani structure.
The State Department said in May 2011 that Badruddin Haqqani sat on the Miram Shah Shura, a group that controls all Haqqani network activities and coordinates attacks in southeastern Afghanistan. It also blamed him for the 2008 kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde.
Jalaluddin Haqqani created his network while serving as a leader in the decade-long insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which began in 1979. He developed extensive foreign contacts, getting money, weapons and supplies from Pakistani intelligence, which in turn received billions of dollars from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
He served as Afghanistan's justice minister after the Soviets left and minister of tribal and border affairs after Taliban fundamentalists seized power in 1996. He joined the Taliban insurgency when the U.S. helped overthrow the regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Haqqani effectively retired in 2005, passing responsibility for day-to-day operations to his son Sirajuddin, who is accused of expanding the network's kidnapping and extortion operations. Reports also accuse the Haqqanis of lucrative drug trafficking and smuggling activity.
The U.S. already has designated Haqqani and his sons individually as terrorists.