Coming full circle

Updated February 26, 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

HE sounds more like a statesman and a peacenik than one of the most wanted ‘terrorists’ with a bounty of millions of dollars on his head. The most feared militant commander who haunted American forces in Afghanistan for almost two decades, Sirajuddin Haqqani now appears the biggest proponent of peace, with the insurgents and the US on the threshold of a peace agreement.

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command envisions “a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”. He wants the US, whose forces he had been fighting, to “play a constructive role in the postwar development and reconstruction of Afghanistan”.

Undoubtedly, it is a well-crafted statement meant to allay the fears of the Afghans as well as the international community of the Taliban returning to their old ways and attempting to re-establish a tyrannical rule once the foreign forces withdraw. The op-ed was published on the eve of the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban. The two sides are expected to sign the deal on Feb 29.

Lamenting that the Afghans had suffered enough in the relentless conflict, the Taliban leader has tried to assure the international community that the militia would “take all measures in partnership with other Afghans to make sure the new Afghanistan is a bastion of stability and that nobody feels threatened...”

Four decades of conflict have polarised Afghan society and now there is a need for reconciliation.

Whether or not the solemn declaration will satisfy the detractors, it does reflect a tangible shift in the thinking of the Islamist militia that had in the past rejected a pluralistic political process. The Taliban have agreed to be part of intra-Afghan negotiations following the peace agreement that would pave the way for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most significant point in the write-up is the recognition of the rights of women to education and to work. The issue has been a major concern for Afghan women and rights groups who fear that the Taliban would try to reverse the progress made in the field of female education in Afghanistan over the past 18 years.

In the past, the Taliban regime had completely banned women’s education and rejected their right to work. However, it remains to be seen whether the militia sticks to its promise once the foreign forces have left Afghanistan. The declaration may help improve the environment for intra-Afghan talks for decisions regarding a post-US-exit scenario.

But this is not enough. The future political stability of Afghanistan will depend on the cessation of violence and how the intra-Afghan dialogue is organised. Four decades of conflict have polarised Afghan society and now there is a need for reconciliation among all warring Afghan factions.

It is quite significant that a militant leader who is still on the US terrorist list has been given space in what is arguably America’s most influential newspaper. It is certainly not just to do with the policy of allowing differing views on the opinion pages; the development marks yet another irony of America’s longest war.

Sirajuddin heads the Haqqani network, the most violent faction of the Taliban that has been responsible for causing the biggest damage to the American forces inside Afghanistan. The State Department officially listed the network as a terrorist group in 2012, and had placed a reward of $5m dollars on Sirajuddin’s head.

Interestingly, the man who was once the scourge of the occupation forces is now seen as a critical peg in US efforts to end the two-decade-long war. It seems that a four-decade, friend-to-foe relationship in a conflict that started in the 1980s during the anti-Soviet struggle is now coming full circle.

Founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most powerful Afghan Mujahideen commanders, the network traces its origin to the 1980s’ CIA-backed guerrilla war against the Soviets. Having been described by the former US President Ronald Reagan as a freedom fighter, Jalaluddin was later labelled as Osama bin Laden’s cohort in terrorism — thereby ending up on America’s most-wanted list.

Charlie Wilson, the late US congressman, who played a critical role in mobilising American support for the ‘Afghan jihad’, described Jalaluddin as “goodness personified”. According to a report, the CIA would deliver suitcases full of US dollars to Haqqani regularly.

Both the CIA and ISI had pivoted on the Haqqanis to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, though their links with members of the Arab brigade involved in the so-called jihad were well known. Initially, the Haqqanis were not part of the Taliban movement when the militia established themselves in Kabul in 1996. But they joined the ‘Islamic emirate’ later.

Jalaluddin was appointed commander-in-chief of the militia after the fall of the conservative Islamist regime. Operating from eastern Afghanistan known as Paktia Loya and across the border in Waziristan, the network soon became the most lethal insurgent group fighting the US-led foreign forces.

Sirajuddin Haqqani took over the command of the outfit after his father’s ill health forced him to step down. He proved a more effective commander, expanding the activities of the network to the capital Kabul. All major attacks in the Afghan capital over the past decade are blamed on the group.

Pakistan’s reluctance to take action against the network had remained a major cause of tension with the US. During a US Senate Armed Services hearing in 2011, the then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mike Mullen described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of the ISI.

He accused elements of the Pakistani intelligence agency of providing operational support and resources to the Haqqani network to wage their insurgency against the US and Afghan forces. But the situation has dramatically changed after the start of the peace talks of which the Haqqanis are also a part.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020