Jalaluddin Haqqani
Jalaluddin Haqqani, right, the Taliban's minister for tribal affairs, points to a map of Afghanistan during a visit to Islamabad, Pakistan, on Oct. 19, 2001, while his son Naziruddin looks on. With their wide-ranging influence, support from Pakistan, and propensity for destabilizing violence, the Haqqanis could by themselves scuttle American aims for a peaceful exit from Afghanistan. Reuters

It is Afghanistan's deadliest insurgent group.

Labeled the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, the Haqqani crime family has built itself from what was once a rebel force bent on removing the Russians in the 1980s into a Mafia-like organization dealing in smuggling, extortion, and assassination.

Led by the revered Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his more ruthless son Siraj, the group now claims to have some 15,000 fighters dedicated to overthrowing the U.S. led-NATO force in Afghanistan, causing as much disruption as possible to the military alliance before its troops finally leave Afghanistan in 2014.

Befriended by the U.S. CIA in the 1980s, the Haqqani crime family has now risen to the top of America's most-wanted list, after a series of audacious assaults on NATO and U.S. facilities late last year, which made them collectively NATO's enemy No. 1 in Afghanistan because of the threat they pose to the continued survival of the American-backed Kabul government. Yet, they remain key to any hope of a peaceful exit after more than 10 years of war against the Taliban.

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

With deep connections to Pakistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda, the Haqqani network holds the key to stability, or chaos, in the region. Here are five essential facts to explain the power, reach, and influence of the Haqqani network.

1. It was cultivated by the U.S. CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, during the 1980s.

Both the Americans and Pakistanis helped transform the nascent fighters who became the Haqqani Network into the powerful and violent network they are today.

During the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Jalaluddin Haqqani proved himself a formidable fighter and leader of the resistance, inspiring his mujahedeen fighters against the technologically superior Soviet forces.

It wasn't long before this battle-hardened commander caught the attention of the CIA, the ISI, and Saudi Arabia, all of which showered him with money and weapons to continue his struggle against the Soviet invaders.

Courted by the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, a leading force in America's controversial involvement in that Afghan conflict, Haqqani even visited the White House during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

However, the Pakistanis have an even longer relationship with the family.

Pakistani-Haqqani ties stretch back to the mid-1970s, when the ISI supported groups such as the Haqqanis in its effort to overthrow the secular government in Kabul.

The Pakistanis had good reason for backing the rebels against Kabul because, at the time, the Afghan government supported Pashtun groups seeking independence from Pakistan.

According to Abdul Rashid Waziri, a specialist at Kabul's Center for Regional Studies of Afghanistan, Jalaluddin enjoyed a special relationship with the Pakistani military throughout the 1980s.

This relationship is as strong now as it was then, analysts say.

The only difference, they say, is that the guns and money are no longer coming from the U.S. via the ISI as they were in the 1980s, but from the ISI alone.

2. The Pakistanis view the network as a long-term asset.

Washington and its allies have ramped up the pressure on Islamabad to abandon support for the Haqqani clan.

For Pakistan, however, the Haqqanis constitute an ace in the hole for getting its way in Afghanistan.

The network's potentially destabilizing effect on foreign troops in Afghanistan offers Pakistan great leverage as it struggles to ensure that its interests are represented in any deals struck by the allies as they exit Afghanistan.

It also offers an insurance policy against archrival India, as it, too, fights for influence in Afghanistan, according to Reuters.

3. The Pakistanis allow them to operate from their territory.

According to the New York Times, the Haqqanis have set up a mini-empire in the Pakistani tribal areas of Waziristan, focused around the town of Miram Shah, where they operate everything from tax offices to Islamic schools.

And like any mafia-type organization, they also own and operate a number of front companies such as car dealerships and property businesses throughout Pakistan, including factories that allegedly produce the ammonium nitrate used in the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that have plagued NATO troops in the latter stages of the conflict.

A short hop over the porous border into eastern Afghanistan, they also run a lucrative extortion racket, extracting money from cash-rich construction firms bankrolled by NATO and the United States.

The extortion practice is the most important source of funding for the Haqqanis, according to former Haqqani commander Maulavi Sardar Zadran.

4. However, continued support is damaging Islamabad's relationship with Washington.

I have sympathy for the Pakistani military leadership, but [I am] disappointed at ISI's continued cooperation with the Haqqanis, said U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last month.

Speaking at a Future of Afghanistan event, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate added that Pakistan's ISI spy agency had a close relationship with the Haqqani network, which he called reprehensible.

Last year, Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also accused the ISI of supporting Haqqani attacks on U.S. targets, going so far as to call the Haqqanis a veritable arm of the spy agency.

The accusation drew an angry response from Islamabad, with one official quoted by CNN saying, The allegation of Pakistan's involvement in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is just a conspiracy against us.

While the U.S. needs Pakistani support, most notably in the form of allowing drone strikes on militants in its territory, the U.S. is also a major backer of the Pakistani government.

Since 2002, American aid to Islamabad has topped $20.7 billion, with about two-thirds of it going to military programs to help battle militants in the country.

5. The Haqqanis hold the key to unlocking a peaceful conclusion to the Afghan war.

With their wide-ranging influence, support from Pakistan, and propensity for destabilizing violence, the Haqqanis could by themselves scuttle American plans for a peaceful exit from Afghanistan.

However, the Haqqanis have said they would support the Taliban leadership in any peace talks.

That announcement, made in September, excited diplomats and strategists who feared the independent group was opposed to the talks conducted between the Taliban and the U.S. in Qatar and Germany last year.