PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Haqqani network, seen as the most lethal insurgent faction in Afghanistan, would take part in peace talks with the United States but only under the direction of their Afghan Taliban leaders, a top faction commander said on Tuesday.
The rare flexibility exhibited by an Afghan militant commander was accompanied by a warning that the Haqqanis would keep up pressure on Western forces with high-profile attacks and would pursue their goal of establishing an Islamic state.
The Haqqanis, who operate out of the unruly border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, say they are part of the Afghan Taliban and must act in unison in any peace process.
The commander, who declined to be identified, accused the United States of being insincere in peace efforts and trying to divide the two organizations.
“However, if the central shura, headed by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, decided to hold talks with the United States, we would welcome it,” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed, referring to the militants’ leadership council.
The Taliban said in March they were suspending nascent peace talks with the United States.
A senior Afghan official closely involved with reconciliation efforts said last week the government had failed to secure direct talks with the Taliban and no significant progress was expected before 2014.
The United States designated the Haqqani network a terrorist organization in September, a move its commanders said proved Washington was not sincere about peace efforts in Afghanistan.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on the Haqqanis.
Isolating the group, who were blamed for the 18-hour attack on embassies and parliament in Kabul in April, could complicate efforts to secure peace at a time when Afghans fear another civil war could erupt after Western forces withdraw.
“CLOSE TO VICTORY”
The Haqqani network may prove to be President Barack Obama’s biggest security challenge as he tries to stabilize Afghanistan before most NATO combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.
The group’s experience in guerrilla fighting dating back to the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s and its substantial financial network, could make it the ultimate spoiler of peace efforts.
A report in July by the Center for Combating Terrorism said the Haqqanis ran a sophisticated financial network, raising money through kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking but also have a legitimate business portfolio that includes import/export, transport, real estate and construction interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf.
The commander said the Haqqani network was pleased about Obama’s re-election, predicting he would be demoralized by battlefield losses and pull out U.S. forces earlier than expected.
“From what we see on the ground, Obama would not wait for 2014 to call back his forces,” said the commander.
“They suffered heavy human and financial losses and are not in a position to suffer more.”
The commander said he and his men were looking ahead to victory.
“We will install a purely a Islamic government, which would be acceptable to all the people,” he said.
“We are present everywhere in Afghanistan now and can carry out attacks when and wherever we want. We are very close to our victory.”
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel