With Forceful Messaging, Can the U.S. Alienate the Taliban?

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Afghan policemen walk at the site of a suicide attack in front of The Indian Embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008. (Photo: Sardar Ahmad / AFP / Getty Images)

When militants serving the Haqqani Network attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008, killing 54, it took several months for suspicions to leak out that the group may have been behind the attack. Not so with last week’s commando-style assault on the U.S. Embassy and other sites in the capital. Within hours Afghan officials were speculating that the group, founded by one-time American ally Jalaluddin Haqqani, had orchestrated the attacks. A day later, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta blamed the group, thought to shelter in Pakistan, and expressed frustration that Islamabad hadn’t done anything to curtail its activities. And on Saturday, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter took it one step further by affirming to Radio Pakistan that not only was the Haqqani Network behind the attack, he suggested that Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the ISI, was in cahoots. “The attack that took place in Kabul a few days ago, that was the work of the Haqqani Network,” Munter said during the interview. “And the fact, that we have said in the past, [is] that there is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistan government. This is something that must stop.”

The publicly available evidence linking the Haqqani network to the attack, and the ISI to the Haqqani network, is scant, a point well exploited by the Radio Pakistan interviewer who asked for evidence to back up either claim, neither of which was forthcoming (read the interview  for a rather amusing, if it weren’t so serious, show of backpedaling).

The accusations are embarrassing, and threaten to further destabilize the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, which has been on edge ever since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. But what if the message was intended for a different audience?

(SEE: Photos of last week’s audacious attacks in Kabul.)

Afghans, for good reason, deeply distrust Pakistan and the ISI. During the anti-Soviet jihad Pakistan backed the most radical militant groups (including Haqqani’s), and then, during the civil war, they funded militias responsible for razing the capital. The Taliban were largely educated in Pakistani madrassahs, and when they came to power in 1996, it was with significant Pakistani support. When anything goes wrong in Afghanistan today, from drought to famine, high prices and suicide attacks, Afghans reflexively blame Pakistanis. So by accusing the Haqqani network, and then publicly and forcibly linking the Haqqanis with the ISI, the U.S. could be attempting to drive a wedge between the Haqqanis and the Taliban, who have long been at pains to distance themselves from Pakistan. And to a larger extent driving a wedge between Afghans and the Taliban in general. While public sentiment towards the U.S. has cooled somewhat in Afghanistan over a surge in the unpopular practice of U.S. military night raids, few Afghans want to see the Americans driven out.

Whether intentional or not, the messaging certainly seems to have put the Haqqanis on the defensive. In a weekend telephone interview with Reuters from an undisclosed location, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group’s operational commander and son of Jalaluddin, refused to comment on last week’s attack, saying “Our central leadership, particularly senior members of the shura [ruling council], suggested I should keep quiet in future if the US and its allies suffer.” He was, however, at pains to distance the group from Pakistan, saying that they had moved from refuges in Pakistan to safe havens in Afghanistan. “Now we consider ourselves more secure in Afghanistan beside the Afghan people. … Gone are the days when we were hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.”

So does that take Pakistan off the hook? Not likely. It wasn’t so long ago that Pakistan’s military leaders offered to bring the Haqqanis to the negotiating table when Afghanistan sat down to discuss reconciliation with the Taliban. Not only was it a rare admission that the government had ongoing contacts with the Haqqanis, despite previous denials, but it also betrayed an obvious desire to keep a hand in any Afghan negotiations, the better to protect its own interests. Afghan Deputy National Security Advisor Shaida Mohammad Abdali was nonplussed by the offer, telling TIME a few days later, “Let us decide who we should talk to, not Pakistan.” If Pakistan really wanted to help, he said, they could bring over the Afghan Taliban instead. “Its no more secret to talk about where the Taliban are. The Taliban are living in the Pakistani cities.”

Perhaps aware of the PR beating being laid on the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin, who has a $5 million price on his head, went on in his interview to affirm that his group would follow the Afghan Taliban’s lead. If Mullah Omar wanted to take part in peace talks with the Afghan government and the United States, the group would follow. Of course, that makes them look good. And the ISI happy.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.