By DECLAN WALSH and ERIC SCHMITT
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani officials reacted cautiously on Friday to news that the United States had designated the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network as a terrorist group, allaying fears that the move could drive a fresh wedge between the two uneasy allies.
The designation order, signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Brunei before heading to Russia for a conference, ended two years of debate inside the Obama administration about the merits of formally ostracizing a powerful element of the Afghan insurgency that American officials say has uncomfortably close ties to Pakistan.
Within hours of the designation, American officials in Washington were seeking to play down worries that it could stymie peace talks with the Taliban or lead to the designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the designation received a studiously muted reception.
Previous diplomatic clashes between Pakistan and the United States have set off condemnation in Pakistan’s electronic media, often encouraged by military officials who are not identified. But on Friday, government and military officials largely avoided comment.
Instead, evening news programs concentrated on domestic politics, the insurgency in Baluchistan and a visit to Islamabad by India’s minister for external affairs.
“This is an internal matter for the United States. It’s not our business,” Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “We are not in the business of coddling terrorists and those who challenge the writ of our state.”
The restraint was consistent with indications from Pakistani officials in recent weeks that they would publicly accept the designation, even if they privately opposed it.
“The Pakistani side is playing it by ear at the moment,” said Cyril Almeida, an analyst with Dawn, a leading English-language newspaper. “They knew it was being pushed by the American military.”
Still, he said, “it adds another complicating layer to a fiendishly complicated relationship.”
Mrs. Clinton said the designation was a sign that the United States would “continue our robust campaign of diplomatic, military and intelligence pressure” on the Haqqani network.
A Pentagon spokesman said it would “degrade the network’s capacity to carry out attacks, including affecting fund-raising abilities, targeting them with our military and intelligence resources, and pressing Pakistan to take action.”
A senior Haqqani commander, however, called it a sign of the United States’ “lame tactics.”
“Americans are claiming that by declaring us terrorist, we would lose support of some Muslim countries,” said the commander, who spoke by satellite phone through an intermediary in Pakistan. “Let me assure everyone that we only seek Allah’s and the Afghan nation’s support.”
Based in the mountains straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Haqqani network has carried out some of the most audacious assaults of recent years. Armed with suicide vests, guns and rocket launchers, the group’s fighters have targeted the United States Embassy, NATO’s headquarters and a five-star hotel in Kabul.
Their links to Pakistan’s military, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, have been a sore point with the United States. American intelligence indicates the group enjoys some support from the ISI, although few officials now support a contention by Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Haqqani network is a “veritable arm” of the ISI.
Pakistani officials say their contacts with the Haqqanis are part of normal intelligence operations, and deny any role in directing violence against American and other NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The designation was the product of a vivid two-year debate inside the Obama administration that current and former officials said ultimately loomed as a lose-lose proposition for Mrs. Clinton.
Any decision to designate could have been seen as the product of pressure from a Congress angry with Pakistan over NATO supply lines negotiations and the fate of Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani who was jailed after helping the C.I.A. locate Osama bin Laden.
Avoiding designation could have handed Mr. Obama’s Republican opponents an opportunity to accuse the president of being weak on a lethal militant group that in June penetrated the perimeter defenses of an American base in southern Afghanistan.
In a conference call with reporters, two senior administration officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, played down concerns from critics of the action and offered examples of how they said the designation would help the United States.
The designation provides the Department of Justice with new means of bringing prosecutions for material support of the Haqqani network, which has raised money among conservative Muslims in the Persian Gulf since the 1980s.
“It gives us a stronger tool as well for going out to other countries and saying we’ve taken this level of action against the group, and we urge you to do the same,” said one official.
The two officials also dismissed the idea that the designation would undercut peace talks with the Taliban, which have been suspended since March. American officials, they said specifically, are not barred from talking to a designated organization.
“Our policy in Afghanistan, as you well know, is fight, talk and build, which is focused not only on putting military pressure, but also seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” one said.
Declan Walsh reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud and Salman Masood contributed reporting.
Courtesy: The New York Times