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U.S. Push To Blacklist Taliban Networks Could Reap Little Reward

Do Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke see eye-to-eye on which insurgents can be talked to?
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is reportedly considering blacklisting major Taliban factions, a move aimed at undermining groups linked closely to Al-Qaeda, but which could also jeopardize Afghan President Hamid Karzai's efforts to reconcile with Afghan insurgent leaders based in neighboring Pakistan.

General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, discussed the idea of blacklisting the Haqqani network with senior administration officials last week, according to "The New York Times." Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan), meanwhile, called on the State Department on July 13 to also place the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council, led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, on its list of terrorist organizations.

Sirajuddin Haqqani currently leads the network founded by his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former Taliban minister and anti-Soviet commander in the 1980s. The network has a reputation for being ruthless, and is accused of being behind many of the most high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The Haqqani network is also seen as having ties to the Quetta Shura, which is based in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta and made up of remnants of the former Taliban regime loyal to Mullah Omar.

Both Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar have long been on the U.S. blacklist of fugitive terrorists, with a State Department program offering $5 million and $10 million, respectively, for information leading to their capture.

But while expanding the U.S. blacklist is intended to strike deeper into the core of organizations affiliated with the two men, with the aim of undermining the insurgency being waged in Afghanistan, doubts have been raised about the effectiveness of the move.

Kabul-based Afghan analyst Wahid Muzda argues that designating Taliban groups, in particular the Haqqani network, as terrorists would do little to persuade its followers to give up fighting.

"I don't think that the Haqqani network can ever break away from the Taliban ranks and come here [to join the government]," Muzda says. "On the other hand, blacklisting is nothing new for them, and the Americans will gain little from this. If they want to pressure or threaten Sirajuddin Haqqani it won't work and the fighting will continue."

End To Rapprochement

Some suggest a move to expand the blacklist could also undermine the Afghan president's reconciliation efforts.

International media recently reported that the Pakistani military brokered direct negotiations between Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, reports both Islamabad and Kabul denied.

If the reports are true, however, a terrorist designation could make it even harder for Karzai to explore rapprochement with the Taliban. It could also push Washington to consistently pressure Islamabad to move against the group in North Waziristan. For years Pakistan has resisted going after the network because its sees the Haqqanis as potential future allies after an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The network is widely believed to be based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal district along the Afghan border, which is also believed to shelter Arab jihadists from Al-Qaeda and militants affiliated with Central Asian extremist groups.

Who To Talk To

The move comes as Karzai has apparently persuaded Washington to push for de-listing certain Taliban leaders from a United Nations sanctions list first established in 1999.

Kabul-based Afghan analyst Ahmad Sayedi tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the move indicates that Washington wants to make a clear distinction between reconcilable and irreconcilable elements among the Afghan insurgents, "to understand who is being talked to and where [and on what terms]."

Sayedi adds that Washington has "information that Jalaluddin Haqqani and some of Mullah Omar's followers have close ties with Al-Qaeda or they are part of Al-Qaeda. The Americans do not want to negotiate with elements closely tied to Al-Qaeda."

Karzai has pursued reconciliation with the Quetta Shura for years through informal contacts. But this February's arrest of its military leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, disrupted the process. Analysts suggest that move pushed Karzai to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban though Pakistan's powerful military, which Kabul has accused of harboring Taliban leaders in the past. Karzai apparently sought new regional alliances after developing critical differences with Washington.

The Obama administration has pushed for reintegrating Taliban foot soldiers and field commanders into Afghan society, but has resisted rapprochement with its fugitive leaders.

U.S. 'Red Lines'

The Quetta Shura and the insurgent networks controlled by its leaders are mostly active in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. U.S. and NATO troops are expected to launch a major stabilization operation in Kandahar in an effort to weaken the Taliban considerably.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special regional envoy, told journalists on July 13 that Washington is keen on helping Kabul to succeed with reintegration programs worth $280 million.

Holbrooke said that Washington was even pushing for a revision of the UN blacklist in the Security Council, but that crossing certain red lines won't be acceptable. "Both the president and the secretary of state have laid out the red lines on this issue many, many times, he said

He said that Washington supports "Afghan-led reconciliation. We are not in direct contact with the Taliban. There may be other indirect contacts going on, track-2 diplomacy, individuals who contact each other, other things, but they don't involve the United States. And that's our position. "People who are willing to lay down their arms, renounce Al-Qaeda, participate in the political process, are always ready to be -- we're always ready to reconcile them -- groups or in -- as individuals."

Reconciliation with the insurgents is expected to figure high on the agenda at the international donors conference scheduled for July 20 in Kabul. The Afghan government is touting the gathering as the largest gathering of international leaders in the country since the 1970s.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Asmatullah Sarwan contributed reporting to this article
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.