Haqqanis to follow Taliban on Afghan peace

 ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – The Haqqani network, one of  the most feared insurgent groups in Afghanistan, would take part  in peace talks with the Kabul government and the United States  only if the Taliban did, its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani told  Reuters on Saturday.   
 The Haqqanis technically fall under the command of the  Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though U.S. officials believe they  can act independently.   
 The group has become so confident after battlefield gains,  that it no longer has sanctuaries in Pakistan, and instead felt  secure inside Afghanistan, said Sirajuddin in a rare interview,  by telephone from an undisclosed location.   
 In what Sirajuddin described as a further sign of strength,  the Haqqanis are also consolidating their hold on eastern  Afghanistan, forcing rival insurgent groups out of territory  they have claimed.   
 The militant leader is described by U.S. forces in  Afghanistan as one of their most lethal enemies. The United  States has posted a bounty of up to $5 million for him.   
 The Haqqanis rejected several peace gestures from the United  States and President Hamid Karzai’s government in the past  because they were an attempt to “create divisions” between  militant groups, he said.   
 Any further efforts to do so would fail, added Sirajuddin.   
 “They offered us very very important positions but we  rejected and told them they would not succeed in their nefarious  designs. They wanted to divide us,” said Sirajuddin.   
 “We would support whatever solution our shura members  suggest for the future of Afghanistan,” he said, referring to  the Afghan Taliban leadership.   
 Pakistani security analyst Ejaz Haider described  Sirajuddin’s comments as a shift.   
 “Sirajuddin’s statement now is significant as a signal to  the United States. That ‘we are prepared to talk if you want to  talk seriously and as part of the larger dialogue with the  Taliban’,” he said.   
 Despite hopes that talks with the Taliban could provide the  political underpinning for a U.S. staged withdrawal from  Afghanistan, the discussions are still not at the stage where  they can be a deciding factor.     
 Months of talks between the two sides — a crucial building  block in any eventual political solution — have yet to develop  into serious negotiations.     
 Washington has repeatedly pressed Pakistan to go after the  Haqqani network it believes is based in the unruly North  Waziristan ethnic Pashtun tribal region near the Afghan border.   
 “Gone are the days when we were hiding in the mountains  along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Now we consider ourselves  more secure in Afghanistan besides the Afghan people. Senior  military and police officials are with us,” said Sirajuddin,  believed to be in his late 30s.   
 “There are sincere people in the Afghan government who are  loyal to the Taliban as they know our goal is the liberation of  our homeland from the clutches of occupying forces.”   
 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Pakistan on Wednesday  the United States would “do everything we can” to defend U.S.  forces from Pakistan-based militants staging attacks in  Afghanistan.   
 U.S. officials suspect militants from the Haqqani network  were behind Tuesday’s rocket attack on the U.S. embassy compound  in Kabul , as well as a recent truck bomb that  wounded 77 members of the American forces.   
 The Haqqani network is perhaps the most divisive issue  between allies Pakistan and the United States, whose ties have  been heavily strained by the unilateral American raid that  killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town in May.   
  Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or  ISI, has long been suspected of maintaining ties with the  Haqqani network, cultivated during the 1980s when Sirajuddin’s  father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a prominent battlefield  commander against forces of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.   
 Pakistan denies accusations it has ties to the Haqqanis.   
 If it is confirmed that the Haqqanis have left North  Waziristan, U.S. pressure on Pakistan to eliminate the group may  ease.   
 Haqqani refrains from attacking the Pakistani state, and  analysts say Pakistan sees the Haqqanis as a counterweight to  the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan.   
 U.S. officials have played down the significance of  Tuesday’s attack on Kabul’s diplomatic enclave, which showered  rockets on Western embassies in a show of insurgent strength.    
 It was the longest and most audacious militant attack in the  Afghan capital in the decade since the Taliban was ousted from  power, and a stark reminder of insurgents’ reach as Western  forces start to return home.   
 Five police and 11 civilians, including children, were  killed in the multi-pronged attacks, which included three  suicide bombings.   
 Asked if the Haqqani network was behind the assault,  Sirajuddin said:    
 “For some reasons, I would not like to claim that fighters  of our group had carried out the recent attack on U.S. embassy  and NATO headquarters. Our central leadership, particularly  senior members of the shura, suggested I should keep quiet in  future if the US and its allies suffer in future.”   
 The Haqqani network is believed to have extensive ties with  some of the world’s most dangerous militant groups, including al  Qaeda, in North Waziristan and elsewhere.   
 Pacifying the Haqqanis could boost the chances of a peaceful  settlement in Afghanistan, where violence is at its most intense  since the overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001.     
 While Jalaluddin is still revered by militants, ill health  forced him to pass on leadership of the group to Sirajuddin, who  is seen as far more ruthless.   
 Asked whether there are 10,000 Haqqani fighters as some  media reports have suggested, Sirajuddin laughed and said: “That  figure is actually less than the actual number.”   
 Sirajuddin said fighters from an insurgent group led by  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had tried to take on U.S. troops in Haqqani  territory.   
 “I spoke to the shura … whether I should allow them to  operate in my area of control. They did not allow me and then I  ordered Hekmatyar’s fighters to either join the Taliban or leave  Khost and they left the area,” he said.   
 The Haqqanis are thought to have introduced suicide bombing  to Afghanistan, and are believed to have been behind  high-profile attacks there, including a raid on Kabul’s top  hotel, an assassination attempt on the president, and a suicide  attack on the Indian embassy.   
 In one example of the Haqqani group’s effectiveness, they  are believed to have helped an al Qaeda suicide bomber who  killed seven CIA agents at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan  last year, the deadliest strike on the agency in decades.   
 U.S. drone aircraft have tried to eliminate senior figures  of the group in North Waziristan. Sirajuddin’s younger brother  was killed by a drone missile strike.   
 Washington has not always regarded the Haqqanis as enemies.   
 Former U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, who raised money for  the Afghan anti-Soviet resistance, once called Jalaluddin  “goodness personified”. The warrior was held in such high esteem  he visited the White House when Ronald Reagan was president.          
 Nowadays, the United states spends a great deal of time  trying to persuade the Pakistanis it is in their interest to  eliminate the Haqqanis, for the sake of regional stability.   
 “We’ve seen in the past what happens when terrorists are  given a de facto safe haven, as the Haqqanis have in parts of  Pakistan – it doesn’t turn out well for either Pakistan or the  United States,” said a U.S. official in Washington.   
 “The open question is whether Pakistan has the will — or  the ability — to.