The CIA has launched more than 100 drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, but one seemingly obvious target remains conspicuously unscathed.
A religious school near the heart of the country's tribal areas has for years served as an operational hub for the most lethal adversary of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the so-called Haqqani network, according to U.S. officials.
Still, the CIA has refrained from hitting the site, U.S. officials said, out of concern that targeting a religious compound might trigger a violent backlash. The U.S. military cannot attack a site inside Pakistan. And U.S. officials said the Pakistani military has failed to clear militants from the school, or madrassa, even though it maintains a fort less than two miles away.
The madrassa on the edge of Miram Shah has emerged as a symbol of the constraints on the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, where the enemy – and the prospects for a clear victory – often seem to lie beyond U.S. forces' grasp.
Recent U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that Pakistan's reluctance to uproot certain militant groups, including Haqqani's, is a significant obstacle to progress in the war. A White House review released Thursday said progress with Pakistan on the issue "has been substantial, but also uneven."
Over the past year, U.S. troops and the CIA have carried out an unprecedented campaign to pound Haqqani targets on both sides of the border, but a senior U.S. military official involved in the operations said the impact has been "moderate" at best.
"It hasn't changed the will of the Haqqani power base in Pakistan," the senior official said. "They're clearly recruiting and training and shipping large numbers of fighters over to Afghanistan."
The stakes are significant because the Haqqani network is accused of sheltering al-Qaeda in Pakistan's border region, and of using suicide bombings and other brutal tactics to exert control over a key Afghan corridor from Khost to the capital of Kabul. At the same time, U.S. officials believe the network is being protected by Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, which has long-standing ties to the group.
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."
Pakistan officials insist they have raided the madrassa, known as Manba Ulom, several times and found no evidence of militant activity behind its ornate gates and high walls. But U.S. officials dispute that assertion.
"It's a focal point for Haqqani operations," said a U.S. intelligence official. Beyond the madrassa's use for recruitment, training and planning, the official said, "there is a strong likelihood that senior Haqqani leaders meet there on a regular basis."
The official and others spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to speak by name about U.S. intelligence on Haqqani or suspicion that the network is supported by the government of Pakistan.
The Haqqani network is considered part of the Taliban insurgency, and a key ally of al-Qaeda. But, rather than focusing on developing overseas terrorist plots or ruling all of Afghanistan, the network seeks to oust U.S.-led forces from provinces on the country's eastern edge and exert mafia-style control.
The group was founded by Jalaludin Haqqani, a prominent mujaheddin fighter in the CIA-backed effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. But the commander, now in his 70s and in poor health, has yielded day-to-day control to his son.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is considered a terrorist by the United States, which has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. He has admitted in interviews to planning the 2008 attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul, as well as an assassination attempt that year on Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Since then, the network has been linked to the suicide bombing of a CIA base in Khost, carried out a brazen attack on a shopping district in Kabul, and held hostage a U.S. soldier, Spec. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared in Paktika province in June of last year.
The Haqqanis have been careful to remain exporters of violence, however, refraining from attacks in Pakistan that might jeopardize the network's sanctuary in the country's tribal belt.
U.S. intelligence officials remain convinced that Pakistan's support for Haqqani goes beyond indifference.
Secret diplomatic cables made public by the WikiLeaks Web site this month 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 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 the official acknowledged that the group's history with the ISI and the restraint it shows toward Islamabad have earned it 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."
Over the past year, the CIA has sought to weaken the Haqqani network with a barrage of Predator strikes. The agency has launched at least 107 drone attacks so far this year, twice the the number in 2009, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. officials said that more than 100 Haqqani fighters have been killed this year.
Most of the strikes have been concentrated in and around Miram Shah, including some within blocks of the Haqqani madrassa. In 2008, there were reports that the structure itself had been hit, but U.S. officials involved in the Predator program insist that was not the case.
Because the madrassa is attended by children and also functions as a mosque, U.S. officials said the CIA has concluded that the risks of a direct strike are too great. Instead, the agency has fired on suspected Haqqani militants as they make their way to and from the madrassa.
"No one in any Haqqani militant location should feel safe," the U.S. official said. Militants who are protected inside the compound "might very well not get very far when they leave."
U.S. military officials credit the drone campaign with putting pressure on the Haqqani network, but argue that the impact on the group's ability to mount attacks in Afghanistan has been minimal.
"I don't know what that 100 means," said the senior U.S. military official, referring to the CIA's asserted body count. The official noted that U.S. forces in Afghanistan had killed a similar number of Haqqani fighters in a two-week stretch earlier this year.
"The numbers game is not a good way to look at this thing," the official said. "The key is the lethality of the Haqqani forces is still very high."
Frustrated by their adversary's resilience, U.S. commanders overhauled their approach in the eastern provinces where Haqqani fighters are concentrated.
Rather than relying on remote forts to stop Haqqani incursions, the U.S. military is deploying more surveillance drones and helicopter assault teams that can track fighters across jagged trails.
Seeking any way they can to detect cross-border traffic more quickly, the U.S. military has even sent dozens of tethered balloons equipped with cameras thousands of feet into the sky.
Most significantly, U.S. officials said that the number of Special Forces missions targeting Haqqani fighters has increased sixfold over the past year, and that the raids are taking a toll.
U.S. military officials note that there has not been a Haqqani-orchestrated attack in Kabul in 10 months. There also was not a large-scale strike during the presidential election earlier this year.
Even so, U.S. forces have had to fend off at least five Haqqani assaults on military outposts in the past five months, including a Dec. 5 attack on Forward Operating Base Lightning in Gardez.