Obama Admin Taking It Easy on Terror Group, Congressmen Charge

The Haqqani network comprises some of Afghanistan's most lethal insurgents. Why isn't the White House doing more to stop them?

The Haqqani network has long been one of the most lethal and dangerous insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan. Now it's forcing an interagency battle of wills in Washington.

The United States has spent years battling the Haqqani organization on the ground of eastern Afghanistan and trying to cut off its flows of money from the Persian Gulf. But it hasn't come close to defeating the group. More than a year ago, Barack Obama's administration formally designated the network a foreign terrorist organization, a move meant to make it harder for the group to raise money. Critics of the White House, though, say it hasn't done enough to dismantle the most dangerous insurgent group in Afghanistan. Congress is now trying to force the administration to step up the fight.

Tucked inside the defense spending bill the U.S. Senate passed late Thursday evening is a provision that forces the administration to come up with a plan to attack the Pakistani-based Haqqani network where it lives -- by going after its cash. It's an effort the White House and the State Department have reportedly been resistant to pursue as the United States attempts to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, build momentum toward a peace settlement in the region, and mend ties with the Pakistani government -- the very government with which the Haqqanis have had ties for years. But the provision stayed in the bill.

"We need a comprehensive strategy from them about how the network operates, how they recruit and how they travel," a congressional staffer told Foreign Policy. "Shockingly, nothing like this has been done."

Although the amendment requires a range of actions, its primary function is to force the Obama administration to get serious about curtailing the network's financing. The five-page provision, "Report on Plans to Disrupt and Degrade Haqqani Network Activities and Finances," also calls for the administration -- from the departments of Defense, State, Treasury, and the director of National Intelligence -- to come up with a plan and report it to Congress within nine months. The plan should include an assessment of the network by the intelligence community, a review of the administration's current policies, and "metrics" to measure the success of the new plan.

Congressional frustration over this issue has been mounting with the administration for more than a year. Obama's team first designated the Haqqanis a foreign terrorist group in September 2012 but seemed to do little to go after the network's finances or learn much about its recruiting and other activities. Then last month, Gen. Joe Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raising concerns about the lack of a comprehensive effort to counter the network. The letter, whose contents are classified, hinted that a whole-of-government approach would put added pressure on the Haqqanis and fully leverage its designation as a foreign terrorist organization.

Dunford and other senior military leaders have long seen the Haqqanis as one of the best-trained, and best-armed, insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They were the first to build IEDs with the powerful explosive material potassium chlorate. They were the first in Afghanistan to equip their bombs with advanced remote-triggering devices, instead of the cruder pressure-plate triggers that have been the norm in the country. Senior military officials believe the group has killed hundreds of American troops and several thousand Afghan security personnel.

On Dec. 11, House members met with Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins to discuss the issue but came away angry that he was not taking their concerns seriously.

"The manner in which the Ambassador addressed Members' questions was not helpful to our efforts to address this important issue mutually," reads a Dec. 20 letter six members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry obtained by Foreign Policy. "Frankly, his manner was one of the least professional engagements we have had with the Administration."

The letter noted Dunford's request. But it also reflected Congress' growing exasperation with the administration: "...we have repeatedly raised concerns that the Administration lacks a whole of government approach to dismantling the Haqqani network and the Administration does not adequately leverage your recent Foreign Terrorist Organization designation," the members wrote to Kerry.

The letter was signed by Reps. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Rogers, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and others. That meeting may have been the last straw and triggered the language of the amendment that passed in the legislation on the evening of Dec. 19.

The amendment to the defense bill was inserted by Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican of North Carolina. On his Facebook page Friday, Burr's statement read in part: "I am very pleased that Senate Leadership included my amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which calls on the Secretary of Defense to issue a report outlining the Defense Department's strategy to disrupt and degrade the Haqqani Network's activities and finances."

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The United States has been going after the Haqqanis militarily for years, hunting its fighters in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, targeting its leaders with drones, and putting a $5 million bounty on the head of its top leader, Siraj Haqqani. But critics of the Obama administration say it hasn't used every element of American power to neutralize the group. Congress wants the White House to step up these other, non-military forms of pressure to degrade the organization.

For example, backers of the new provision want the Treasury Department and agencies like the CIA to make it harder for the group to raise money from wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf and prevent it from running what amounts to a protection racket in eastern Afghanistan and parts of neighboring Pakistan. The United States has been trying to pull that off for years with little success, but the new bill will make it an even higher priority.

Afghan and coalition forces have fought the Haqqanis for years, targeting the network with drone strikes inside of Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But critics of administration policy argue nothing has been done to go after the network more strategically, namely by cutting off its financing or even devising a plan to do so.

"They need to produce a strategy for how they're going after the network and then explain why they haven't seized any money even though they have the [foreign terrorist organization] designation for over a year," the congressional staffer said.

The Haqqanis have long been seen as a strategic threat to Afghanistan as well as U.S. national security interests in that region. They've been blamed for numerous attacks, especially the ones in and around Kabul. It was the Haqqani group, for example, that launched the deadly attack near the U.S. embassy in Kabul in September 2011 that lasted 19 hours and killed three coalition soldiers, American defense officials say.

The threat the network poses was punctuated again in November when Afghan national security forces intercepted a Haqqani-backed plot near the border with Pakistan using one of the largest truck bombs ever built -- a reflection of what some see as a concerning trend of using ever larger bombs in their attacks. The truck contained 61,500 pounds of explosives -- and would have caused an explosion thought to be ten times the size of the bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 -- capable of leveling whole city blocks and killing scores of people. The plan was stopped before it could be executed but pointed to the growing danger the network poses to stability in Afghanistan. The United States does not track specifically how many deaths are attributable to the organization, but some estimates put it at more than half of the nearly 2,300 American service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

The network leverages its sanctuary across the border in the Waziristan region of Pakistan and is considered to be one of the country's most effective insurgent groups, with close ties to al Qaeda. But what makes the Haqqani network so nettlesome for Washington is that it is closely tied to Pakistan's security forces; therefore degrading it poses political and operational challenges.

Another complication is that the group got its start battling the Soviets with American-provided money and weaponry: Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, later made famous in a book and movie, even visited Afghanistan in the spring of 1987 to spend time with the group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani. The group has in the past signaled a willingness to negotiate with the United States, however, and some senior American officials believe the network could eventually sign a peace treaty of sorts with the Karzai government. The prospect of talks is the main reason that the administration seemed to oppose the provision forcing a strategic plan to degrade the network, even after it was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in September 2012.

"We have a designation, and no plan for executing it," said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's South Asia program. Chayes believes that Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Dobbins' office "has long been fixated on negotiating with the insurgents, and a perhaps Ireland-based corollary that you have to preserve the leadership in order to negotiate with them." But, she says, the White House is ill-advised to take such an approach.

"What they don't understand is that negotiating with the leadership rewards Pakistan's deliberate use of armed militants as an instrument of foreign policy," Chayes said. But the most effective way to induce militants to negotiate independently of Pakistani influence is to begin hitting the top of the network, she argues. "Then people will start calculating their costs and benefits differently and start taking risks -- since negotiations might offer them a prospect that is better than the status quo."

State Department officials say they didn't oppose the legislation and take the threat the Haqqanis pose to U.S. security "extremely seriously." According to one State official, they have actually designed a "whole-of-government effort to combat it."

"We actively utilize military, intelligence, diplomatic, and financial channels to disrupt their activities and dismantle the organization's leadership," the State official said by e-mail, agreeing only to speak on background about a sensitive matter inside the government. "DOD, the intelligence community, State, Treasury, and [the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization] are critical members of that whole of government effort, and we have briefed Congress on their coordinated efforts, which have had some significant results to date, but we would agree that we have more work to do as long as they pose a threat."

But clearly, Gen. Dunford, members of Congress, and other elements inside the Defense Department believe more could be done. The Pentagon would only say that it is reviewing the legislation. "The department is reviewing the NDAA legislation for its potential impacts on DoD policies," said a defense official. "It would be premature to comment on specifics at this time."

Tony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said devising a plan to go after the Haqqani network alone doesn't answer bigger questions about the proper U.S. counterterrorism strategy, not only in that region but in Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and in other places.

"It is a tiny part of a much broader problem," he said. And forcing the White House to come up with a strategy doesn't mean it will do it.

"Announcing a strategy doesn't mean you are going to take action," he said. "We've mastered the ability to announce strategies without doing anything about them."

Cordesman was dubious that the measure would actually for the White House to do anything.

"Any individual in the executive branch that hasn't found a way to ignore a reporting requirement or a request for a strategy is so dumb that they deserve anything they get," he said.

Yochi Dreazen contributed to this report.



Energy Boost

The next head of the Senate Energy Committee has big plans for U.S. gas exports.

The Washington version of musical chairs unleashed by the White House's selection of Sen. Max Baucus to be the next American ambassador to China could reshape energy policy in the Senate -- with important implications for U.S. plans to export some of its current energy bonanza.

With Baucus's likely departure for Beijing, the Senate finance chair will come open, and due to looming retirements, seems poised to fall to Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who currently chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Aides say Wyden has wanted the job for years.

And that would open the way for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to take over at the Energy Committee; the No. 2 Democrat on the committee, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, is retiring.

Unlike most Democrats, Landrieu unabashedly favors tapping U.S. oil and gas resources; Louisiana is at the epicenter of offshore oil and gas development, shale gas plays, and refineries.

She is a big supporter of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries. And one of her top legislative priorities is a bill, drafted alongside Republican ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, that would give states a larger share of the royalties from offshore energy production. That proposal could get new momentum if Landrieu is in charge of the committee.

But the starkest difference between Landrieu and Wyden is seen in the debate over exporting some of America's energy bonanza.

Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners, a consultancy, wrote in a recent research note that Landrieu was "an outspoken proponent of oil and gas production" with a different view of energy exports than Wyden.

Thanks to the unexpected boom in oil and gas production in recent years, energy exports are suddenly a hot topic in a country that for decades has worried about its energy imports.

For now, that means U.S. exports of natural gas. Just a few years ago, coastal communities were building terminals to import natural gas from overseas producers; now, thanks to the shale boom unleashed by hydraulic fracturing, the United States is the world's largest producer of natural gas, and almost 30 projects that would build terminals to liquefy natural gas and ship it to needy customers in Europe and Asia are waiting for government approval.

Wyden has long advocated a go-slow approach to gas exports. While he's never expressed outright opposition to the idea, he urged the Obama administration to carefully consider how exports could affect domestic prices for gas, and how that might hurt consumers and businesses that have greatly benefitted from cheap and plentiful gas.

For instance, after the Department of Energy gave its fifth conditional green light for exports in November, Wyden urged Washington to tread gently with the remaining applications. "It is imperative these potential exports not have a significant impact on domestic prices for families and manufacturers, and in turn harm America's energy security, growth and employment," he said.

Landrieu, by contrast, supports greater U.S. exports of natural gas, and has called for Washington to let the market decide how many terminals get built, and when. Representing a state that has both gas producers, who generally favor exports, and big gas consumers, who above all else want cheap gas, Landrieu says she understands both sides of the issue.

Much of the sound and fury over potential gas exports hinges on what they will do to domestic prices; high-profile opponents of unfettered exports worry that they'll strangle the golden goose of cheap gas that has underpinned a manufacturing revival in the United States.

But Landrieu argues that what will actually hurt the gas industry are sustained low prices, since many producers will be in the red. A guaranteed export market, she argues, will stimulate even greater U.S. gas production.

The Department of Energy, which is responsible for approving gas-export applications to countries with which the United States lacks a free trade agreement, has so far taken a slow and steady approach. It has approved five applications but hasn't yet ruled on 23 more -- including six in Landrieu's home state.

The pace and scope of U.S. natural-gas exports is a hugely important issue for key U.S. allies, including Japan and many members of the North American Treaty Organization.

Indeed, Japanese officials have repeatedly pressed the Obama administration to approve export terminals in a timely fashion; since the 2011 Fukushima accident, when Japan shut down its nuclear plants, the country has been importing expensive energy and now has a trade deficit. Even though freezing gas to a liquid, then packing it into a tanker and shipping it across the Pacific adds to the total cost, gas is so expensive in Asia right now that U.S. exports look very appealing to Tokyo.

That's true in Europe as well, where gas prices are higher than in the United States but not as bad as in Asia. Europeans who've relied on supplies from North Africa have faced supply questions in the past two years; Europeans who rely on Russian gas have faced supply worries, for very different reasons, for the last two decades.

Of course, the real showdown in U.S. energy export policy will likely come next year, and will put Landrieu squarely on the hot seat: Should the United States export crude oil?

The once unthinkable notion -- as recently as 2005, the United States imported 60 percent of its oil -- is now on the table. Groups as far apart as ExxonMobil and the Washington Post editorial page have both recently called for the United States to allow crude exports.

The reasoning is as simple as it is politically controversial: Though the United States still imports almost 40 percent of its oil, it is producing loads of light, sweet crude. That's exactly what refineries in Europe like to process, while refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast are specially built to handle the heavier crudes that come from Canada and Mexico. Allowing crude exports would allow oil companies to get top dollar for their products, while optimizing the way refineries turn crude into useful products.

But the U.S. energy boom won't last forever, and oil exports might make less sense in a few years' time. Indeed, just this week, revised estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration show U.S. oil production peaking in 2019 and then declining. The EIA expects U.S. dependence on imported oil to be about the same in 2040 as it is today. 

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