US Designates Haqqani Network 'Terrorist Organization'

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Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The Haqqani network is now the most lethal Taliban faction in Afghanistan. It's carried out spectacular attacks on US forces and Afghan civilians for years, but it was just today that the US government officially designated the network a terrorist organization. Stephen Biddle says there are reasons for that. Biddle is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Stephen Biddle: Clearly they are terrorists and everybody's known that for a long time, but the issue has always been do we gain anything by announcing it? The administration has heavily committed to some kind of a negotiated settlement as the main way of getting out of Afghanistan with our interests realized. And I think the issue for designating the Haqqanis as a terrorist organization is it's hard to imagine a successful settlement to the war that doesn't involve them somehow. If you designate them as a terrorist group the argument has been that you make a settlement less likely, which in turn makes it less likely that we'll realize our interests in the conflict.

Mullins: Does that mean the US has given up on having them as some kind of negotiating partner?

Biddle: I don't think we've given up. I think what we've done is allowed ourselves to get boxed into a rhetorical corner by the US congress in a way that's accepting a tactic that will probably make the negotiations harder, but probably won't make them impossible.

Mullins: Explain what you mean about being boxed in a corner by congress.

Biddle: Well, the congress has been increasingly irritated with not just the Haqqanis, but with their Pakistani sponsors as Pakistani sponsored Haqqani military action against American forces in Afghanistan produced a series of spectacular attacks over the course of the last year. So what the congress basically said was these people are bad guys, we ought to be treating them like bad guys, why aren't we? And they finally voted a resolution that basically says the administration had to either name them as terrorists or tell the congress why they weren't terrorists. And I suspect that part of what happened here is eventually it just became too difficult to figure out how are we gonna tell the congress that the Haqqanis are not terrorists? So we ended up going ahead with the designation, even though I think at the margin it makes the negotiations harder.

Mullins: So right now as Hilary Clinton says that the Haqqani network is a terrorist organization, that sets into place some consequences. What does it mean? What's the practical effect of that?

Biddle: There are consequences, but they're not very severe. The primary ones are threefold. As a terrorist organization no Americans are legally allowed to provide material support to them. This freezes Haqqani assets in the US and it blocks entry by members of the Haqqani network to the United States. The trouble is there weren't any meaningful Americans providing material support to the anyway. They don't have a lot of assets in the US and I don't think the Haqqanis were planning to tour the Grand Canyon anytime soon. There wasn't a lot of legal entry by Haqqani terrorists into the United States anyway. So what the sanctions that get turned on by this announcement do is a bunch of things that you know, they present things that weren't happening anyway. So it's not clear that this really turns up the actual objected heat on the Haqqanis all that much or gives them anything in the way of a real objective incentive to bargain with us in any way they hadn't before. What it amounts to was a form of name calling.

Mullins: Okay, so name calling, but could they retaliate against name calling if they wanted. Does it matter to them what Hilary Clinton says in terms of a designation of them being a terrorist organization?

Biddle: I'm sure to some extent they receive this an an insult, which it is actually. I suspect that they may regard it as an indication that our level of good faith in the negotiations is not as great as they might have thought. There's been some speculation that they might mistreat the one American military captive in Taliban hands, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who's widely believed to be held by the Haqqanis. But I think in practical terms the level of Haqqani violence against Americans is determined by a variety of strategic calculations that the Haqqanis make, probably related very closely to what their military capacity is at any given time. I doubt that just because of this they would increase the tempo of their military activity very much. I think mostly what it does is it just inserts some sand into the gears of the negotiating process.

Mullins: Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, thanks.

Biddle: Thanks for having me.