WASHINGTON — Congress is stepping up the pressure on the Obama administration to slap the terrorist label on the Haqqani network, a militant group responsible for plotting and launching attacks from Pakistan against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
By voice vote Tuesday, the House approved a bill that would require the secretary of state to report to Congress on whether the Haqqani network meets the criteria to be designated a foreign terrorist organization and if not, to explain why. The report is due within 30 days of the president signing the measure.
The administration has sanctioned top individuals of the Haqqani network, but it is still reviewing whether to label the entire organization. That delay has frustrated members of Congress. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, added an amendment to the bill stating that it was the sense of Congress that the Haqqani network meets the definition of a terrorist organization and they should be designated as one.
"The Obama administration has been considering formally designating the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law but has yet to act," said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., during a brief House debate.
Last week, the State Department defended its effort.
"We've been very aggressive about sanctioning their top individuals, and we've seen that as the most effective way to go about this. But the review is ongoing, and is actively ongoing," department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
The measure now heads to the Senate, which approved a similar bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., last December.
The Haqqani network, largely operating in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, is affiliated with both the Taliban and al-Qaida. U.S. officials say it represents one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan stability because it is believed to use Pakistan as a rear base for attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The House vote comes just weeks after the United States and Pakistan ended a rancorous seven-month standoff with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologizing to Pakistan for the killing of 24 Pakistani troops last fall and in return securing the reopening of critical NATO supply lines into Afghanistan. Throughout the uneasy relationship between the United States and Pakistan, American officials have pressed Islamabad to crack down on the extremist Haqqani network.
The bill states that "nothing in this act may be construed to infringe upon the sovereignty of Pakistan to combat militant or terrorist groups operating inside its boundaries."
In May, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees wrote to Clinton asking her to act immediately in labeling the Haqqani network a terrorist group.
The four leaders – Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., and Rogers – said that based on meetings with U.S. and Afghan officials in Afghanistan, "it was clear that the Haqqani network continues to launch sensational and indiscriminate attacks against U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the group poses a continuing threat to innocent men, women and children in the region."
The four noted that it had been six months since the State Department had undertaken its "final formal review" of the Haqqani network.
"The Haqqanis have continued to attack U.S. troops and the U.S. embassy in Kabul during that period," the lawmakers said.
The letter also noted that the Obama administration may have been reluctant to act while Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was trying to negotiate a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban that may have included or affected the Haqqani network.
Last fall, the top U.S. military officer accused Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency of backing extremists in planning and executing the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and a truck bomb attack that wounded 77 American soldiers.
In his last congressional testimony before retirement, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the Haqqani insurgent network "acts as a veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
The House also passed a bill that would strengthen economic and security ties between the United States and Israel. The bipartisan legislation, which was approved by voice vote, would reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Israel and American support for the Mideast ally's right to self-defense. The bill would extend current loan guarantees to Israel that expire later this year and authorizes the transfer of obsolete or surplus defense material from the United States to Israel.
The bill reiterates U.S. support for a negotiated two-state solution to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It now goes to Obama for his signature.
The House also passed legislation that would expand the State Department's rewards for justice program to target the world's most serious human rights abusers, with African warlord Joseph Kony a top target.
The vote was 333-61.
The overall bill would authorize operations for the State Department and speed up the process for U.S. arms sales overseas. The strong vote reflected the desire of both parties to complete a broad-based State Department bill for the first time in a decade. The measure avoided the politically charged fights over U.S. aid to foreign nations and focuses on funds for the department, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Peace Corps.
One provision that has widespread support, including the backing of the department, is expansion of the rewards program.
The program, established in 1984, gives the secretary of state the authority to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of anyone who plans, commits or attempts international terrorist acts. The amount of the reward would be at the secretary's discretion. The bill would expand that authority to allow the State Department to publicize and pay rewards for information about individuals involved in transnational organized crime or foreign nationals wanted by any international criminal tribunal for war crimes or genocide.
Kony and his ruthless guerrilla group, the Lord's Resistance Army, are responsible for a 26-year campaign of terror in Central Africa that has been marked by child abductions and widespread killings. The United States designated the Lord's Resistance Army a terrorist organization in 2001. Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for heinous attacks in multiple countries.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.