Islamabad: The bodies kept surfacing — hanged, shot, beheaded — and always with a note alleging the victims were anti-Taliban spies. "Learn a lesson from the fate of this man," warned one message found on a corpse in Pakistan`s North Waziristan tribal region.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official told a news agency that at least 30 of his agency`s operatives have been killed over the past year in the region partly controlled by the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. The autonomous Afghan Taliban faction — whose leader was once a US ally — is a serious threat to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan`s east and operates on both sides of the border with Pakistan.
The US wants Pakistan to expel the network from its North Waziristan sanctuary, especially as 30,000 more US troops head to Afghanistan. But Pakistani officials say taking on the network now is too risky; the killings have helped turn North Waziristan into an intelligence black hole at a time when Pakistan`s Army is stretched thin fighting insurgents elsewhere.
Some critics suspect Pakistan is simply making excuses because it wants to use the Haqqanis as a future asset to influence Afghanistan and stay ahead of its bigger regional rival, India, after the Americans withdraw. Others say Pakistan is wise to avoid antagonising a group whose primary focus remains Afghanistan.
The Haqqanis` story is one of shifting alliances in Afghanistan`s long history of war and foreign occupation, and one that underscores the difficulty of sorting friend from foe in the current conflict.
The Haqqanis are tied to al Qaeda, technically pledge allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and have a history of links to Pakistani intelligence. But ultimately, they feel beholden to no one but themselves, said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with Stratfor, a US-based global intelligence firm.
"Over the years, as Pakistan has been caught in a juggling act between dealing with its own insurgency and the US, people like the Haqqanis have become increasingly independent," Bokhari said. "The Haqqanis` goal is to work with whoever is willing to work with them."
The network`s aging leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a respected commander and key US and Pakistani ally in resisting the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Haqqani even visited the Reagan White House.
In 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal, Haqqani and others seized power in Afghanistan with US approval. In the 1980s and 1990s, Haqqani also hosted Saudi fighters including Osama bin Laden. That hospitality is believed to extend to al Qaeda and other foreign fighters on both sides of the border today.
After the Taliban seized power in the mid-1990s, it made Haqqani a government minister. Following the Islamist regime`s ouster he was again offered Cabinet posts — this time by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But he decided to focus on ridding Afghanistan of Western troops.
Haqqani, believed to be in his 60s or older, is said to be too ill to do much now, and his son Sirajuddin has taken over the network.
Some suspect that the Haqqanis retain their links with Pakistan`s main spy service, Inter-Services Intelligence, though the ISI denies this. India and Afghanistan claim there were Pakistani fingerprints on the July 2008 bombing of India`s embassy in Kabul, which the US alleges was one of several audacious Haqqani operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan has denied any role.
The Haqqani network is thought to make much of its money through kidnappings, extortion and other crime in at least three eastern Afghan provinces.
"Haqqani`s people ask for money from contractors working on road construction. They are asking money or goods from shopkeepers," said Khaki Jan Zadran, a tribal elder from Paktia province. "District elders and contractors are paying money to Afghan workers, but sometimes half of the money will go to Haqqani`s people."
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist who interviewed Sirajuddin Haqqani in 2008, said he feels the burden of following in his father`s footsteps.
Sirajuddin "has fought, but not as much as his father," Yousafzai said. "Jalaluddin Haqqani could operate openly in Pakistan. Siraj has to stay underground all the time. It`s a very dangerous existence for him. He was telling me they have lost 30 members of the family."
Pakistani officials insist they consider the Haqqanis a threat, but that mounting a concerted effort against them now is too risky.