By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON : (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday urged the State Department to designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist group, pressing the Obama administration to get tougher on an issue that already has strained ties with Islamabad.
On a voice vote, lawmakers approved a bill that referred to the Haqqani network as “the most dangerous of Afghan insurgent groups battling U.S.-led forces in eastern Afghanistan.”
U.S. officials have accused the Haqqanis of high-profile strikes including an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September and an earlier truck bombing that wounded dozens of U.S. troops.
Despite those accusations, the militant group is not on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. Inclusion in the list would bring sanctions such as criminal penalties for anyone providing material support to the group and seizure of any assets in the United States.
The reason the network has not been placed on the list, some U.S. officials say, is that some State Department officials had hoped the Haqqanis could be brought off the battlefield as part of Afghan peace talks between the government and insurgents.
State Department officials say they have also slapped individual sanctions on many of the most important Haqqani leaders, and that this has already put pressure on the group.
Washington wants Islamabad to bring the Haqqani network into talks, but has been wary of exerting too much pressure on Pakistan over the matter and further stressing ties. One headache in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was removed earlier this month when Pakistan reopened land routes to resupply U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The bill passed by the House on Tuesday would require a report from the State Department on whether the Haqqani network meets the criteria for designation as a foreign terrorist group — and if not, why not.
That legislative language has already passed the Senate. But the House added a couple of sentences saying that lawmakers believe the network does meet the criteria, and urging the secretary of state to put the Haqqani network on the foreign terrorist list.
It was unclear when the amended bill would be brought up in the Senate, but it has support from some key lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin.
“Haqqani has killed so many of our people. And it’s all in terrorist attacks,” said Feinstein, a Democrat. She has been writing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for more than two years to urge the network be placed on the terrorist list.
“The argument has been that if we want to negotiate with them, we can’t designate them a terrorist network. I disagree with that. I think if somebody is going to negotiate with you, they negotiate with you because they think they’re losing,” Feinstein said.
The Haqqani network, based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, is named after aging leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. He was among the mujahideen leaders that fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and his group received CIA backing then.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Mohammad Zargham).