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 The Associated Press that at least 30 of his agency's operatives have been killed over the past year in the region partly controlled by the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network. The autonomous Afghan Taliban faction _ whose leader was once a U.S. 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 U.S. wants Pakistan to expel the network from its North Waziristan sanctuary, especially as 30,000 more U.S. 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 antagonizing 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-Qaida, 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 U.S-based global intelligence firm.
"Over the years, as Pakistan has been caught in a juggling act between dealing with its own insurgency and the U.S., 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 U.S. 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 U.S. approval. In the 1980s and 1990s, Haqqani also hosted Saudi fighters including Osama bin Laden. That hospitality is believed to extend to al-Qaida 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 U.S. 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.
The accounts of the killings of intelligence operatives _ including informants _ matched reports from North Waziristan in December 2008 and January of this year when the bodies of some two dozen men alleged to be U.S. or Pakistani government spies surfaced in the area. Bodies continued to be found throughout 2009. Either the Haqqanis or allied militant groups are believed to be behind the killings.
An official from the Interior Ministry, which runs the country's police force, said dozens of bodies have been found. One of the victims, a young-looking man, was photographed lying on his back with a note on his body.
Pakistan's army is already waging offensives against groups that target the Pakistani state, and has skipped over those like the Haqqanis that are more focused on Afghanistan.
Still, the senior intelligence official bristled at the latest American pressure to act against the Haqqanis, saying Pakistan had tried at least five times to take out Sirajuddin. He declined to give details, but noted that the U.S. hadn't had any luck nabbing either the father or the son even though both are believed to spend most of their time in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani officials spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue.
The U.S. has also launched missile strikes on Haqqani targets, including one in September 2008 that reportedly killed a sister of Jalaluddin Haqqani and possibly other relatives, and the U.S. military says some of the new American troops arriving in Afghanistan will land in Haqqani territory.
The Interior Ministry official said missile strikes are the best way to target the Haqqanis, but argued that Pakistan should be given the technology to do the job itself.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's tribal regions, said the Haqqanis' connections to al-Qaida and other militants had made Pakistan's security apparatus increasingly distrustful of its old ally.
"I think Pakistan is very clear about its strategy now. It would like to remove all armed terror groups from its soil," he said.
Other observers were more skeptical, noting that the Pakistanis are likely thinking about the future, beyond the U.S. troop surge, to the days when the Americans are gone and they still have to live with whatever is left of the Haqqanis.
The Pakistanis also probably see the Haqqanis as a key component of any potential peace deal with the Taliban, some said.
"I think that the Pakistanis would like to wait and see," Yousafzai said. "Because they would see if the new American strategy is working and whether they're going to stay the course."
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.