WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday signaled the United States remains open to exploring a peace deal including the Haqqani network, the militant group that U.S. officials blame for a campaign of high-profile violence that could jeopardize Washington's plans for withdrawing smoothly from Afghanistan.
"Where we are right now is that we view the Haqqanis and other of their ilk as, you know, being adversaries and being very dangerous to Americans, Afghans and coalition members inside Afghanistan, but we are not shutting the door on trying to determine whether there is some path forward," Clinton said when asked whether she believed members of the Haqqani network might reconcile with the Afghan government.
"It's too soon to tell whether any of these groups or any individuals within them are serious," she said in an interview with Reuters.
Inclusion of the Haqqani network in a hoped-for peace deal -- now a chief objective in the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy after a decade of war -- is a controversial idea in Washington.
Officials blame the group for last month's attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and a truck bombing that injured scores of American soldiers.
The State Department is facing heat from Capitol Hill for refraining, at least so far, from officially designating the Haqqani group, which U.S. officials say is based in western Pakistan, as a terrorist organization.
The White House has backed away from assertions from Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the top U.S. military officer until he retired last month, that Pakistani intelligence supported the Haqqani network in the September 13 embassy attack.
But President Barack Obama and others have put their sometimes-ally Pakistan on notice that it must crack down on militants or risk severing a key relationship.
According to media reports, U.S. officials have held meetings with Haqqani network representatives as part of their efforts -- which have not yet yielded any visible results -- to strike a peace deal, but the State Department declines to discuss details of the reconciliation process.
In recent months reconciliation has become a more prominent feature of Obama's Afghan strategy even as U.S. and NATO soldiers continued to battle the Taliban and Haqqani militants in Afghanistan's volatile south and east.
Earlier this year, Clinton advanced a peace deal as a key plank of regional policy for the first time, saying Washington would support a settlement between the Afghan government and those militant groups that meet certain requirements, including renouncing violence and supporting the Afghan constitution.
Despite the conciliatory signals, Clinton said the United States would stick to its military campaign that the White House hopes will make militants more likely to enter serious negotiations.
"Now, it is also true that we are still trying to kill and capture or neutralize them (the Haqqani network)," Clinton said. "And they are still trying to, you know, kill as many Americans, Afghans and coalition members as they can."
"In many instances where there is an ongoing conflict, you are fighting and looking to talk," Clinton said. "And then eventually maybe you are fighting and talking. And then maybe you've got a ceasefire. And then maybe you are just talking."
It is unclear how quickly a peace deal could be had, as it remains unclear how military commanders can achieve and defend security improvements as the foreign force in Afghanistan gradually grows smaller.
While parts of the Taliban's southern heartland are safer than they were, Obama will be withdrawing the extra troops he sent to Afghanistan in 2010 just as commanders' focus turns to the rugged eastern regions where the Haqqani group are believed to operate.
Clinton did not directly address the question of designating the Haqqani network as a 'foreign terrorist organization,' but suggested the United States would want to keep its options open as it seeks peace in a region known for historic merry-go-round of political and military alliances.
"It's always difficult in this stage of a conflict, as you think through what is the resolution you are seeking and how do you best obtain it, to really know where you'll be in two months, four months, six months," Clinton said.
"We are going to support the Afghans and they want to continue to see whether there is any way forward or whether you can see some of the groups or their leaders willing to break with others."
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Andrew Quinn; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao)