The Haqqanis have revamped their role since the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when as seminary students with ideological ties to Pakistan’s religious parties — especially during the Zia years — they became useful to Pakistan’s military establishment and had access to resources and finances to fight across the border from Pakistan’s tribal belt. With direct support from Pakistan’s military establishment, political sympathisers and safe havens in North Waziristan and Paktia (Afghanistan), they were well-established by 1979. Then, almost two decades later, they placed themselves at the nexus of Afghan jihad as lethal players orchestrating a network of global jihad with ties to the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda and other regional actors benefitting their long-term survival.
However, with the US drawdown next year in Afghanistan, it is clear the Americans are losing trust in the Pakistan government when it comes to clamping down on the Haqqanis of North Waziristan and their allies and thus the escalation in drone strikes. Drone strikes have eliminated militant members from the senior cadre (Sangeen Zadran, Sept 2013) with another strike last month targeting fighters gathered at a Haqqani affiliated seminary in the Hangu district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — a rare drone strike outside the tribal region and second after Bannu district in 2008.
Known to be a close aide of the Haqqani network’s founder Jalaluddin, Ahmed Jan, who was killed in the Hangu strike, was in charge of operations in Kabul. November was also when Jalaluddin’s son and the chief financier for the militant organisation was shot dead in Islamabad. Designated as a terror organisation last year by Washington, the Haqqani network is perceived as a strategic threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the future. The shift in strategy to wear down its fighters and leaders before 2014 could partially be attributed to Pakistan’s refusal to give up its support for the Haqqanis and the Taliban. But given their ability to persist through decades of war, what role will the Haqqanis choose to play in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the next decade and how will that impact the West?
The Haqqanis have historically operated within Afghanistan, primarily in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. Haqqani leaders recruit, train and direct operations in Afghanistan from Miramshah, North Waziristan, facilitating fighters, commanders, and resources across the border. According to the Institute for the Study of War’s 2012 report, ‘The Haqqani Network: A Strategic Threat,’ the Haqqanis operate mainly out of Sarai Darpa Khel and Dande Darpa Khel, two towns in Miramshah close to the Pakistan Army headquarters. They are ideologically committed insurgents forging partnerships with local and transnational militant groups that are mutually beneficial to both parties: the Haqqanis provide the Pakistani Taliban with tens of thousands of foot soldiers while the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) relies on them for access to Afghanistan, in turn allowing the Haqqanis control over the Pakistani Taliban’s violence across the border. The latter is reason why the Pakistani military establishment, the authors argue, value the organisation as a strategic asset and continue to accord them impunity. However, there is the argument that liaising with the Al Qaeda global jihad project has become more of a liability for the Haqqanis, bringing them under the US drone radar and proving an irritant even to their long-time (Pakistani) handlers who are under pressure to do away with them.
The Haqqani relationship with Al Qaeda appears driven by ideological solidarity, which implies that a political settlement in Afghanistan that might include the Haqqanis at some later stage (if at all) and isolate Al Qaeda wouldn’t work. While the authors do not state that these links will break, they do say that if they do, “such change would mark a significant break with the group’s trajectory over the last two and a half decades.” Why do the Haqqanis remain attached to the Al Qaeda project and how will this evolve in the future? Is it the ideology of extremism or the financial sharing that is long-term and unconditional?
The authors quote a 1988 speech at a Harakat-ul Jihad conference by Jalaluddin Haqqani: “Know that we will not lay down arms once Afghanistan becomes free,” he had said. The fight to free Muslims “of the world” will continue, he said, which in part echoes the Al Qaeda rhetoric. Bin Laden had initially also wanted to set up an army that would fight all “infidel” governments that oppressed Muslims. This was 1988 when the anti-Soviet jihad was popular among Arab fighters and the Pakistani backers of the mujahedeen aligned with Al Qaeda’s ideology.
The authors write that the Haqqanis sent Jalaluddin on talking tours to raise funds to compensate for the reduction in direct CIA support in 1988. The following year, Jalaluddin’s ideology was politically endorsed at a conference in Karachi dedicated to the Haqqanis, where the JUI-F chief, Fazlur Rehman, said: “The Afghan jihad, which was spearheaded by Maulvi Haqqani and other truthful leaders, defeated the Soviet empire. But now there is another enemy of this jihad. That is America and its conspiratorial policies that are intended to ruin Afghanistan.” American involvement in the Gulf in 1990 was seen as part of their ‘anti-Islamic strategy’ (pro-Israeli) to oppress the Muslim world. Al Qaeda continues to remain aligned with the Haqqanis, basing its fighters in their territory, the relationship reinventing the former (new cadre of fighters) while increasing tension with the Americans wanting to strike a deal with the Afghan Taliban. The book clearly explains why the American-led war effort to eliminate Al Qaeda has failed in Afghanistan. It also explains that since Jalaluddin first partnered with the Afghan Taliban in 1996, the Haqqanis have helped the latter in south-eastern provinces during spring offensives, with both sides benefiting: the Haqqanis have access to the Taliban brand while the latter localise their representation.
Based partly in North Waziristan, the Haqqanis maintain historic sanctuary and support nodes inside Pakistan’s tribal areas from where they send fighters and material to assist terror campaigns in Afghanistan’s south-east, having masterminded attacks in provinces surrounding Kabul as well as within the city itself. An increased presence in the north, through their partnership with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is evident in the targeted assassinations of northern powerbrokers who are affiliated with the Jamiat-e-Islami Party. These are to undermine the Jamiat party and the influence of minority powerbrokers, who are historical rivals to the Pakhtuns.
Haqqani commanders are associated with the Dar al-Ulum Haqqaniyya madrassa in Akora Khattak and high-level Al Qaeda leaders are alumni who have fought the anti-Soviet jihad. The madrassah is known for its free tuition, accommodation, food and access to basic facilities, preparing students for jihad and providing militant organisations with a “supply of committed fighters familiar with basic military equipment and tactics.” According to Shuhrat Nangyal, the former editor of the Pashto version of Manba’ al-Jihad, the network is affiliated with more than 80 madrassahs in the tribal region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, note the authors.
The authors pay close attention to the historical bonds between Al Qaeda and the Haqqani fighters, especially in the post-2001 period. They state that these ties are not only historic but multigenerational, which contribute to Al Qaeda’s longevity in the region and globally. The patriarch of the network was the first Afghan Islamist who recruited Arab fighters endorsing a global outlook. Although it has been noted that Abdullah Azzam’s writings in 1984 were known to have set the foundation for modern jihad, it was Jalaluddin who had announced that waging jihad against the Soviets was a universal obligation four years before Azzam.
In the mid-1980s, Bin Laden established his first base in Haqqani territory in Afghanistan and Arab fighters came there to train. When the Afghan Taliban came under international pressure in the 1990s to curb Bin Laden’s activities, the group found the freedom to manoeuver in Haqqani-controlled territory.
It is because of this nexus that US efforts immediately after 9/11 to reach a political settlement with the Haqqanis might have failed. One among many meetings in 2001 between Jalaluddin Haqqani and US officials in Islamabad bore no results, write the authors. Even though Jalaluddin had been “sanguine about the Taliban’s defeat and prepared to switch loyalties as he had done so often in the past,” the Americans were not ready to negotiate and give him space in the new Afghan government. Instead, they wanted an unconditional surrender and imprisonment at Guantanamo followed by release in exchange for information. He refused. The authors have clearly detailed the extent of Haqqani control as they provide safe havens for a multitude of jihadi actors and function as proxy players through which Pakistan can “shape and secure its interests along the Durand Line.” As a “platform for the delivery of violence,” they have reworked their role (after the Soviet war) despite setbacks (finances, bases, the Afghan war and drone attacks) that have degraded the network’s capabilities.
Resilience is a word attributed to the network: “‘Haqqani is the most resilient enemy network out there,’ noted a commander of the US military brigade in Khost in May 2011.” They have been known to regroup each spring during the war years, replenishing their ranks and supplying men to the Afghan Taliban. As a “nexus player” since 1973, the network realises that with the change in the war theatre, the new Haqqani generation might want more from their local handlers than their role as proxy warriors, especially as drone strikes continue to target key commanders. If that happens, the blowback will be lethal in its direction and management of violence. The Haqqani network to date doesn’t attack the Pakistani state but provides significant facilitation as well as ideological and military training to the TTP. This could change if the Haqqanis are driven from their traditional sanctuary and suffer losses. Their role will also determine (or further strain) future ties between Washington and Islamabad. The network doesn’t show its public associations with the TTP, but given its cognisance of Pak-US ties (drone strikes) and the lack of a broader role in any new Afghan set-up, it might review its objectives.
As militant proxies are used by the Pakistani establishment over decades to achieve their geopolitical objectives, groups such as the Haqqani network have emerged as the most significant challenge to the undoing of the militant infrastructure. With the security establishment selectively supporting certain militant groups, and targeting others that have out-lived their utility, their approach to curbing terror based on geopolitical strategy and interference in regional politics further threatens the state and their control over independent groups.
Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012
By Vahid Brown and Don Rassler
C. Hurst and Co., London