Washington: The Central Intelligence Agency has launched more than 100 drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, but has conspicuously refrained from touching a religious school located in its tribal region that has for years served as an operational hub for the Haqqani network, considered the most lethal adversary of US forces in Afghanistan, according to US officials.
US officials said that the seemingly obvious target remains unscathed out of concern that targeting a religious compound might trigger a violent backlash.
The US military cannot attack a site inside Pakistan, and US officials said that the Pakistani military has failed to clear militants from the madrassa, even though it maintains a fort less than two miles away, The Washington Post reported.
Because the madrassa is attended by children and also functions as a mosque, the CIA has concluded that the risks of a direct strike are too great, the paper said, adding that the agency has instead chosen to fire on suspected Haqqani militants as they make their way to and from the madrassa.
Located on the edge of Miram Shah, the madrassa has emerged as a symbol of the constraints on the US effort in Afghanistan, where the enemy and the prospects for a clear victory often seem to lie beyond US forces` grasp, it added.
Recent US intelligence assessments concluded that Pakistan`s reluctance to uproot certain militant groups, including the Haqqani network, was a significant obstacle to progress in the war on terror.
Although over the past year, US troops and the CIA have carried out an unprecedented campaign to pound Haqqani targets on both sides of the border, a senior US military official involved in the operations said that the impact has been "moderate" at best, the paper said.
"It hasn`t changed the will of the Haqqani power base in Pakistan," the official said, adding, "They`re clearly recruiting and training and shipping large numbers of fighters over to Afghanistan."
The Haqqani network poses "the most significant threat to the political and economic heart of Afghanistan”, the military official said. "And they still benefit from not being under enough pressure."
According to the paper, Pakistan officials insist they have raided the madrassa - known as Manba Ulom- several times, and found no evidence of any militant activity behind its ornate gates and high walls, but US officials dispute that assertion.
"It`s a focal point for Haqqani operations," said a US intelligence official, adding that beyond the madrassa`s use for recruitment, training and planning, "there is a strong likelihood that senior Haqqani leaders meet there on a regular basis”.
It is noteworthy that while the Haqqanis remain exporters of violence, they refrain from attacks in Pakistan that might jeopardise the network`s sanctuary in the country`s tribal belt.
On the other hand, US intelligence officials remain convinced that Pakistan`s support for Haqqani goes beyond indifference, according to the paper.
Secret diplomatic cables made public by the WikiLeaks website reflect a widely held American view that Islamabad sees the Haqqani network as a group that can be trusted to exert Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
"They continue to provide overt or tacit support for proxy forces (including the Haqqani group . . .)," said a February 2009 cable. Subsequent memos were more stark, saying that there was little hope of Pakistan moving militarily against its proxies, and that "in the case of the Haqqanis, it is not clear the Pakistani military could achieve a decisive victory even if it wanted to."
In a recent interview in Islamabad, a senior Pakistani intelligence official denied that the country`s spy agency - known as the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate - supports Haqqani, but acknowledged that the group`s history with the ISI and the restraint it shows toward Islamabad have earned it a special status.
"Both sides should be grateful to [Jalaludin] Haqqani," the Pakistani intelligence official said. "He was the creation of the CIA and ISI" and the "CIA`s best commander. We created the monster together”.