ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The United States was not sincere about peace in Afghanistan when it signaled it would remain open to exploring a settlement that includes the Haqqani network, one of the group’s senior commanders said on Thursday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested in comments this week that Washington would not shut the door to the Haqqanis — blamed for high-profile attacks in Afghanistan — in any peace arrangement.
The Haqqanis saw the remarks as an attempt to divide Afghan insurgent groups and believed only the top leaders of the Taliban should negotiate, said the commander.
“We had rejected many such offers from the United States in the past and reject this new offer as we are not authorized to decide the future of Afghanistan,” he told Reuters.
In an interview with Reuters, Clinton did not spell out who the United States believes should speak for Afghanistan’s insurgent groups and said it was too soon to tell whether any of them were serious about reconciliation.
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 CIA has been using remotely piloted drone aircraft to hunt down leaders of the Haqqani network in northwest Pakistan, where it says the group enjoys sanctuaries.
A suspected U.S. drone strike killed a close aide of the commander of the Haqqanis in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region on the Afghan border on Thursday, intelligence officials said.
The strike came as U.S. special representative Marc Grossman arrived in Islamabad to meet top officials and mend ties strained by recent U.S. allegations that Pakistan is supporting the Haqqanis.
Jalil Haqqani, 33, who helped organize the Haqqanis’ operations, was one of four militants killed when two missiles allegedly fired by a U.S. drone struck a house in a village, the officials said.
The senior Haqqani commander denied the report and said Jalil had no link to the group.
The Haqqanis, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, have emerged as a major source of tension in U.S.-Pakistani ties, with former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen calling them a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
“Jalil was a highly trusted companion of Sirajuddin. He had been with the Haqqani group for a long time and was tasked with handling communications,” one intelligence official said.
The official added that Jalil was Sirajuddin’s cousin.
In a second attack, a suspected U.S. drone fired three missiles at a group of militants in the South Waziristan border region, killing six, according to intelligence officials.
Pakistani officials have angrily denied U.S. allegations that the country is helping militant groups such as the Haqqani network strike at NATO and Afghan targets in Afghanistan, including the September 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul.
Sirajuddin said recently his group felt secure enough to operate freely in Afghanistan and had no need of safe havens in Pakistan.
Sirajuddin told Reuters in September that his group would take part in peace talks, but only if the Afghan Taliban did so as well, a position reiterated by the senior commander.
“The Haqqani network is not a separate movement. It’s part of the Taliban and it cannot hold any separate talks. We are Taliban and Mullah Mohammad Omar is our leader,” he said.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis in order to help Washington stabilize Afghanistan as much as possible by the end of 2014, when all NATO troops are due home from Afghanistan.
Grossman’s visit comes at a time of some of the worst tensions in U.S.-Pakistani ties, already badly strained after a May 2 commando raid killed Osama bin Laden, who had apparently been living in a garrison town near Islamabad for years.
Grossman held meetings with Pakistan’s president, prime minister, the powerful army chief and the foreign minister.
“We talked about how we can continue, in a systematic way, to identify the interests that we share with Pakistan, and there are many, and find ways to act on them jointly,” he said at a media appearance with the foreign minister.
Additional reporting by Haji Mujtaba in MIRANSHAH, Hafiz Wazir in WANA, Saud Mehsud in DERA ISMAIL KHAN, and Jibran Ahmad in KARACHI; Writing by Qasim Nauman; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Nick Macfie