ISLAMABAD - Pakistan is said to have banned the feared Haqqani Network, a militant outfit allied to the Afghan Taliban, but officials cite unexplained “complications” for Islamabad’s reluctance to formally announce the decision.
Government officials told VOA the decision to ban the Haqqani Network will be formally announced at “an appropriate time” but did not provide details.
Officials say the move is one outcome of the talks that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held with Pakistani leaders during his visit to the country last week. Pakistani authorities are also linking Kerry's visit with the U.S. decision last week to designate the fugitive leader of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, as a global terrorist.
Counter-terror push follows Peshawar school attack
These officials say the Haqqani Network ban is part of the so-called National Action Plan (NAP) that Pakistan launched to intensify counter-terrorism efforts since the December 16 deadly militant raid against a school in Peshawar that killed 150 people, mostly children.
The school attack was the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan's history, and led to an outpouring of grief and rage across the country. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an alliance of anti-state militant groups collectively known as the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the bloodshed in “revenge” for the killing of its non-combatants in army operations against the extremist group.
The extraordinary school assault has led the government and military to rapidly strengthen and expand counterterrorism actions. Since the attacks, authorities have reinstated the death penalty, intensified the already ongoing anti-insurgency offensives in the tribal areas and created military courts to try civilian terrorism suspects.
Additionally, as part of a crackdown on banned outfits working under new names, more than two thousand suspected extremists across the country have been detained and around five thousand people have been placed on a new terrorist watch list.
Pakistan has hanged 20 people convicted of previous terrorism charges since the school attack. Officials say the cases of 500 more convicted terrorists are being processed for execution.
Authorities say they are also taking steps to ensure that all Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan are properly registered. The Afghan refugee population is estimated to be around three million but more than half of them have not registered with authorities. The registered refugees living in cities are being instructed to return to their home refugee camps.
Haqqani ban praised abroad
Even though the ban on the Haqqani Network and several other groups known for links to the Pakistani military has not been officially announced, the United States has gone ahead and welcomed the reported move.
“This is an important step toward eliminating terrorist activity in Pakistan… Obviously, the Secretary was just there and had a wide-ranging conversation with the Pakistanis about counterterrorism,” the State Department spokesperson said at a regular briefing last week.
In the past, U.S. officials have described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani spy agency, ISI.
Afghan and U.S. officials have long alleged that key Haqqani leaders used sanctuaries in Pakistan for plotting high-profile attacks in Afghanistan. They also have said the network allegedly receives support from the Pakistani military spy agency, the ISI. Besides attacking Afghan and U.S. targets, critics say the network has worked to curb Pakistan-rival India's influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad flatly denies any links or support for the group.
But the ban against the Haqqanis has been greeted as a possible breakthrough.
“This is an important step toward eliminating terrorist activity in Pakistan,” a State Department spokesperson said at a regular briefing last week.
Afghan links to pakistan's tribal areas
The Afghan Taliban has long rejected that it relies on militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Amid reports of the reported Haqqani Network ban, Afghan Taliban spokesmen dismissed it as totally irrelevant to their operations in Afghanistan.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, insisted it is not aware of any group called Haqqani Network. In an emailed statement, he asserted that the network is a “fictitious” group and is a ploy of the Western intelligence agencies” to divide those fighting foreign “invaders” in Afghanistan.
“Mr. Haqqani and his mujahideen (fighters) very much live inside the country. They do not move out of Afghanistan and maintain no contacts with outsiders,” he said.
The Pakistani Army launched a broad offensive in June against militants in North Waziristan, considered the stronghold of the Haqqani militants. Officials have reported killing around two thousand militants in and around the Waziristan region. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been displaced by the operations, which saw the army seize control of areas long held by militant groups.
Army officials insist the offensive has uprooted bases of Haqqani Network in the volatile North Waziristan region, meaning the group is unable to launch attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil.
But suspicions prevail that Haqqani leaders were given ample time to move out of the border areas before the army operation.
No more ‘Good Taliban’
Pakistan has long been criticized for allowing anti-Afghan and anti-India Islamist militants to operate on its territory and for targeting only those extremists that are attacking the Pakistani state.
However, Pakistani civilian and military leaders insist that the so-called “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” policy has been abandoned.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday reiterated his government’s resolve while addressing a gathering in Islamabad attended by foreign diplomats.
“The government is determined to wipe out terrorism in all its shades and hues and has adopted a zero-tolerance policy against terrorists," he said. "We will leave no stone unturned to make sure that all areas of Pakistan are cleansed of all kinds of terrorists, militants and violent extremists. Pakistan will neither allow anyone to use its territory against any other country nor would it tolerate if terrorists use foreign soil for the terrorist activities in Pakistan.”
Some critics, like human rights advocate Tahira Abdullah, say that the answer to Pakistan’s terrorism problems lies in existing laws, if political will is demonstrated to implement them effectively.
“It is not the time to make new policies. It is the time to implement the laws of Pakistan that exist against terrorism and against hate speech and hate literature and all those who believe in extremist militant Islam. We have laws. We have polices. We lack political will and the commitment,” said Abdullah.
Pakistan’s English daily Dawn, in an editorial questioned what it described a “mysterious” ban on groups like the Haqqani network and others.
“What will a ban on the Haqqanni network mean in practice given that the major sanctuary in North Waziristan has already been disrupted?” it asked. “Zero tolerance certainly does not mean simply military operations and heavy-handed counterterrorism measures in the urban areas; what it does suggest is a commitment to progressively disarm and dismantle militant groups and the wider extremist network that enables those groups to survive and thrive.”