KABUL The American ambassador to Afghanistan said on Thursday there was "no question" that the Haqqani network mounted attacks on Kabul and other areas over the weekend, and reiterated a long-standing demand that ally Pakistan go after the group.
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks on foreign embassies and parliament, which lasted 18 hours, killing 11 Afghan security forces and four civilians. Thirty-five insurgents died.
"There is no question in our mind that the Haqqanis were responsible for these attacks," Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters.
"We know where their leadership lives and we know where these plans are made. They're not made in Afghanistan. They're made in Miram Shah which is in North Waziristan, which is in Pakistan."
Though the death toll was relatively low considering the scale of the assault, it highlighted the ability of militants to strike high-profile targets in the heart of the capital even after more than 10 years of war.
The United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan's military to launch a major offensive in North Waziristan to go after the Haqqanis. Pakistan says it is already stretched fighting homegrown Taliban militants elsewhere near the Afghan border.
Pakistan, recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. aid, sees the Haqqanis as a strategic asset that acts as a counterweight to the influence of rival India in Afghanistan, analysts say.
Pakistan denies that claim.
"Thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist actions inside Pakistan from individuals and groups that are in these so-called safe haven areas," said Crocker.
"So they really need to take action and that is going to be a major part of our dialogue going forward. That's what we are pressing them to do."
The U.S. assertion that the Haqqanis were behind the recent attacks on Kabul and elsewhere, and renewed calls for Pakistani action against the group, could deepen strains in the strategic alliance between Washington and Islamabad.
A Pakistani intelligence official expressed concern that the American assertion would bring renewed pressure on Pakistan to launch a major operation in North Waziristan, home to some of the world's most dangerous militants.
"What we are worried about is the pressure that's going to come over North Waziristan," he told Reuters. "We have no connection to the attack."
After an attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul in September, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, called the Haqqani network a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence service.
Ties have suffered since U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a unilateral raid on Pakistan soil in May last year, embarrassing Pakistan's powerful military.
A November 26 NATO cross-border air attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers plunged relations to a low point.
The Haqqani network, which is linked to al Qaeda, says it is no longer based in Pakistan and operates only from Afghanistan because it had made serious battlefield gains.
Because it has the most seasoned fighters, and commanders who gained experience fighting Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Haqqanis are the most lethal insurgents.
Their effectiveness means they could also be spoilers in the Afghan reconciliation process.
The Haqqanis are thought to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan. They are believed to have been behind several high-profile attacks, including a raid on Kabul's top hotel and an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai.
Named after its leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, it is one of three of the Taliban-allied insurgent factions fighting U.S.-led NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.
Haqqani gained notoriety as an anti-Soviet mujahideen commander in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Despite ill health, he still inspires Haqqani foot soldiers believed to number about 4,000, as well as other militant groups based along the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
His son, Siraj, seen as more ruthless, runs the network's daily affairs.
Crocker said the insurgent death toll during the weekend attacks suggested the Haqqanis were not gaining strength.
The operations, however, may have been designed to make big headlines, not inflict big casualties.
"They clearly have an ability to launch attacks against multiple targets, but the effectiveness of these attacks in highly limited," said Crocker.
"That doesn't mean we should brush them off."
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Nick Macfie)