They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.

They safeguard their mountainous turf by planting deadly roadside bombs and shelling remote American military bases. And they are accused by American officials of being guns for hire: a proxy force used by the Pakistani intelligence service to carry out grisly, high-profile attacks in Kabul and throughout the country.

Most deadliest group

Today, American intelligence and military officials call the crime clan known as the Haqqani network — led by a wizened militant named Jalaluddin Haqqani who has allied himself over the years with the C.I.A., Saudi Arabia's spy service and Osama bin Laden — the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan. In the latest of a series of ever bolder strikes, the group staged a daylong assault on the United States Embassy in Kabul, an attack Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged recently was aided by Pakistan's military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. According to two American officials, cellphones used by the attackers made calls to suspected ISI operatives before the attack, although top Pakistani officials deny their government played any role.

But even as the Americans pledge revenge against the Haqqanis, and even amid a new debate in the Obama administration about how to blunt the group's power, there is a growing belief that it could be too late. To many frustrated officials, they represent a missed opportunity with haunting consequences. Responsible for hundreds of American deaths, the Haqqanis probably will outlast the United States troops in Afghanistan and command large swaths of territory there once the shooting stops.

American military officers, who have spent years urging Washington to take action against the Haqqanis, express anger that the Obama administration has still not put the group on the State Department's list of terrorist organisations out of concern that such a move would scuttle any chances that the group might make peace with Afghanistan's government.

“Whoever is in power in Kabul will have to make a deal with the Haqqanis,” said Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. “It won't be us. We're going to leave, and those guys know it.”

When their threat was less urgent, the Haqqanis — estimated at 5,000 to 15,000 fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan — were not a top priority for the Americans. Now largely run by two of Mr. Haqqani's sons, who experts say are even more committed Islamists than their father, the network is in a position of strength as the United States tries to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan before pulling its troops from the country.

In recent days, top Haqqani network leaders have indicated that they are willing to negotiate, but on their own terms.

The group maintains close ties to the Taliban, but often works independently, and some intelligence officials see Haqqani operations like the American Embassy attack this month as a very public message from the group that it will not be cut out of any grand bargain.

One former American intelligence official, who worked with the Haqqani family in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, said he would not be surprised if the United States again found itself relying on the clan.

“You always said about them, ‘best friend, worst enemy.' ”

Militia and ministate

With a combination of guns and muscle, the Haqqani network has built a sprawling enterprise on both sides of a border that barely exists.

The Haqqanis are Afghan members of the Zadran tribe, but it is in the town of Miram Shah in Pakistan's tribal areas where they have set up a mini-state with courts, tax offices and radical madrasa schools producing a ready supply of fighters. They secretly run a network of front companies throughout Pakistan selling cars and real estate, and have been tied to at least two factories churning out the ammonium nitrate used to build roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

American intelligence officials believe that a steady flow of money from wealthy people in the Gulf states helps sustain the Haqqanis, and that they further line their pockets with extortion and smuggling operations throughout eastern Afghanistan, focused in the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.

Over the past five years, with relatively few American troops operating in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqanis have run what is in effect a protection racket for construction firms — meaning that American taxpayers are helping to finance the enemy network. Maulavi Sardar Zadran, a former Haqqani commander, calls this extortion “the most important source of funding for the Haqqanis,” and points out that a multi-year road project linking Khost to Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan was rarely attacked by insurgent forces because a Haqqani commander was its paid protector.

But the group is not just a two-bit mafia enriching itself with shakedown schemes. It is an organised militia using high-profile terrorist attacks on hotels, embassies and other targets to advance its agenda to become a power broker in a future political settlement. And, sometimes, the agenda of its patrons from Pakistan's spy service, the ISI.

A NATO officer who tracks Haqqani activities in south-eastern Afghanistan gave a blunt assessment of the Haqqanis' brutal ways of intimidation, saying: “They will execute you at a checkpoint, or stop you and go through your phone. And, if they find you're connected to the government, you'll turn up in the morgue. And that sends a message.”

According to a senior American military official, cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis into Afghanistan have increased more than fivefold this year over the same period a year ago, and roadside bomb attacks are up 20 percent compared with last year.

For years, American officials have urged Pakistan to move against the Haqqanis' base of operations in North Waziristan. They typically are rebuffed by military and intelligence officials in Islamabad, who say that Pakistan's military is overstretched from operations elsewhere in the tribal areas and is not ready for an offensive against the Haqqanis.

As a result, the United States has fallen back on a familiar strategy: missiles fired from armed drones operated by the C.I.A. But because the Haqqani network's leaders are thought to be hiding in populated towns like Miram Shah, where the C.I.A. is hesitant to carry out drone strikes, American officials said that the campaign has had only limited success against the group's leadership.

Limited U.S. options

On February 19, 2009, the day before Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's new senior military commander, was due in Washington for his first meetings with the Obama administration, the American Embassy in Islamabad sent a classified cable to the State Department.

American officials believed that General Kayani, Pakistan's onetime spymaster, had for years overseen Pakistan's covert support for militant groups like the Haqqani network, and the cable offered blunt advice about the coming talks.

In the 30 months since, few in Washington believe that Pakistan's support of armed militia groups has diminished. American officials who were once optimistic they could change Pakistani behaviour through cajoling and large cash payments now accept a sober reality: as long as Pakistan sees its security under threat by India's far larger army, it will rely on militant groups like the Haqqanis, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba as occasional proxy forces.

The new urgency for a political settlement in Afghanistan has further limited Washington's options for fighting the Haqqani network. During high-level discussions last year, Obama administration officials debated listing the group as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” which allows for some assets to be frozen and could dissuade donors from supporting the group. While some military commanders pushed for the designation, the administration ultimately decided that such a move might alienate the Haqqanis and drive them away from future negotiations.

Officials chose to take the more incremental step of naming individual Haqqani leaders as terrorists, including Badruddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Senior American officials said there was once again a fierce debate inside the Obama administration about whether to put the entire group on the terrorist list.

But as Washington struggles to broker an endgame for the Afghan war, there is widespread doubt about whether the Haqqanis will negotiate, and whether their patrons in Islamabad will even let them. After a decade of war, there is a growing sense among America's diplomats, soldiers and spies that the United States is getting out of Afghanistan without ever figuring out how a maddeningly complex game is played.

“Is there any formula for Pakistan to agree to stop supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan and instead help broker and be satisfied with a political settlement?” asked Karl W. Eikenberry, who served as both America's top military commander in Afghanistan and its ambassador to the country.

“We don't know the answer to that question,” he said. (Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.) — © New York Times News Service

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