The villain responsible for the raft of violence against U.S. targets in Kabul has been identified -- and the finger points directly to a shadowy insurgent group and, by extension, to Pakistan's intelligence agency.
The verdict came from U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, who on September 23 told U.S. lawmakers that the Haqqani network "acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] agency.”
In recent days, Mullen and other senior officials have accused Islamabad of harboring the group on Pakistani soil and even facilitating some of its most daring attacks against U.S. military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan.
The accusations prompted a harsh response on September 23 from Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who demanded proof and warned the United States that it risks losing an ally if it continues to accuse Islamabad of supporting extremists.
All of which leads to the question of what the network -- named after Afghan military commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, a patriarchal ethnic Pashtun cleric who mentored Osama bin Laden -- looks like today.
The titular head of the network, who made his name fighting some of the fiercest battles of the Afghan-Soviet war, is not the strongman he once was. The 60-something Jalaluddin Haqqani is now reportedly bed-ridden and the torch has passed to his son Sirajuddin. "Khalifa," as the younger Haqqani is commonly known, now claims to be leading 15,000 fighters against 300,000 NATO and Afghan forces.
The network, which originated in Afghanistan, is now believed to be headquartered in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal district across the border from Haqqani home territory in southeastern Afghanistan. The Haqqani family figures prominently among the Zadrans -- a large Pashtun tribe spread out around the southeastern provinces of Paktika, Paktia, and Khost.
Sirajuddin Haqqani and other leaders of the group express allegiance to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. But many -- including Taliban commanders, Afghan, and NATO officials -- consider them a distinct fighting force that serves as a lynchpin for a loose alliance among Pakistani, Afghan, Central Asian, and Arab Al-Qaeda cadres and allies.
In Islamabad, former Pakistani military General Talat Masood has closely watched the changing fortune of the Haqqanis -- from one of the most favored CIA-funded anti-Soviet guerrilla groups to one of Washington's top public enemies. He says that the Haqqanis have always been one of Islamabad's favorite Afghan allies because of their military potential.
Masood disagrees with Mullen's characterization of the Haqqani network as an extension of Pakistan's ISI, but he suggests that Islamabad's approach toward the network is harming its relations with Washington.
U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said that the Haqqani network "acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] agency.”
"First it [the Pakistani government] thinks that it cannot continue to oppose all the groups which are opposed to [the government in] Afghanistan. It has its own priorities. But at the same time, it thinks that when the Americans leave [Afghanistan] these would be the groups with whom it would have to interact," Masood said.
"But I think that is a policy which has now turned into a situation wherein these groups are taking advantage of Pakistan's somewhat lenient attitude toward them and hitting hard on U.S. and NATO forces and thereby inviting their wrath."
Old Pakistani Ties
Pakistan's ties to the Haqqani network can be traced back to the mid-70s.
Abdul Rashid Waziri, a specialist at Kabul's Center for Regional Studies of Afghanistan, says that Haqqani first attempted to stir a rebellion against Afghanistan's secular republican government in 1975. Haqqani heralded his arrival with an unprecedented assault against an Afghan border post. Waziri notes that at the time Islamabad generally backed Afghan radical Islamists in response to Kabul's support for autonomy-seeking Pashtun and Balochi groups.
Waziri, who served as a former deputy minister of tribal affairs in Afghanistan in the 1980s, says that Jalaluddin Haqqani enjoyed a special relationship in the 1980s with the Pakistani military. At that time, Waziri says, favor was shown through gifts of money and weapons. The Haqqanis still enjoy high status in Pakistan, according to Waziri, but this is also making them unpopular in Afghanistan.
Wazir rejects Sirajuddin Haqqani's recent claims that his network is no longer based in northwest Pakistan, and has carved out secure sanctuaries within Afghanistan. The belief that the network is based on Pakistani soil is a thorn between the U.S., which is demanding that Islamabad take military action against the Haqqanis, and Pakistan, which is wary of cross-border U.S. intervention.
More than 50 members of the Haqqanis' extended family, including one of Jalaluddin Haqqani's sons, have been killed by U.S. drone strikes, which Islamabad also officially opposes.
"There is no place in Afghanistan where he [Sirajuddin Haqqani] can be safe. Somebody is telling him to claim that he operates from within Afghanistan [to deflect pressure from the U.S.]. In the past they [the Pakistanis] used to claim that Osama bin Laden was in [the eastern Afghan province of] Kunar," Waziri said.
"And sometime they will name Waziristan as his hideout. But Osama bin Laden spent five years living next to [the premier Pakistani military academy of] Kakul, in Abbottabad."
Working from the assumption that the Haqqani network is ensconced in Pakistani territory, former Pakistani Brigadier General Saad Muhammad says Islamabad must change its approach.
"Pakistan needs to change its policy. Those [Afghan rebels] who have taken refuge in Pakistan either needs to be pressured into negotiations so we can resolve our problems in Afghanistan. Or, we should abandon them and tell them, 'we want nothing to do with you,'" Muhammad said.
But breaking free from the Haqqanis would not be easy for Islamabad, according to Masood. He believes the group maintains and even harbors factions not only of the Afghan Taliban, but of Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad blame for attacks on its civilians and security forces.
Masood says that Pakistan, nevertheless, has to make a choice.
"If Pakistani gives the indication that it's very stubborn and obstinate and will not change its policy and will continue to do what it is doing at the moment," he says. "Then, I am afraid, it will have to choose between the Haqqani group and not only the U.S. but the Western world."
RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Abdul Hai Kakar contributed to this report