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More Trouble from Afghanistan?

by Khaled Ahmed

File Photo. Noorullah Shirzada—AFP

The ongoing conflict between the Haqqani Network-dominated Taliban and the I.S.-Khurasan group may spiral into Pakistan

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul should have left Pakistan considering itself better placed to sort out its relations with Afghanistan. Arch-rival India, once close to the Ashraf Ghani-led government and influencing its Pakistan policy, is on the outs and will struggle to regain its foothold in a country now more or less dependent on Islamabad for survival. This temporary bonhomie likely extends to formal recognition of the Taliban government—at least once China takes the first step. But Pakistan should not make the mistake of forgetting that its own Taliban—the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—is sheltering in Afghanistan and has become part of the I.S.-Khorasan group that the government in Kabul is not yet willing to take on.

Adding to Afghanistan’s foreign policy woes, its neighbors are clearly unwilling to accept the Taliban government: uppermost comes Tajikistan, with the Tajiks comprising the second largest non-Pashtun community in Afghanistan now being hunted by the Taliban. Other Central Asian states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are also scared of getting stabbed in the back by religious fervor in their own Sunni populations.

Peace that brings more war

China is aware of this danger and will tread cautiously in the direction of recognition. Pakistan as a state that once sheltered the Taliban has to be aware of how the greatly apprehensive non-Pashtuns of Afghanistan plus Shia-Hazaras will behave in the coming days. If the Taliban balk at the conditions of governance laid down by the West—and more or less agreed-to by China and Russia—Pakistan faces global isolation once again as a pro-Taliban state that gets nothing as quid pro quo from the Kabul government.

James M. Dorsey, writing in South Asia Journal on Nov. 12, warns that the entire Muslim-populated region may be threatened by “non-pluralistic strands of the Islamic faith”: “The fault-line by default divides proponents and detractors of political Islam and shifts the epicenter of religious ultra-conservatism in the Muslim world from the Arab to the non-Arab Middle East and expands it into South Asia. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan cemented by the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021 and coupled with multiple steps by the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that encourage and embolden religious ultra-conservatism and militancy emphasize South Asia’s new place in the Muslim competition for ranking on the pecking order of a new world order.”

Conversion of the ‘handler’

In Pakistan’s “Afghan war”, the Haqqanis were the “adopted” warriors. General Hamid Gul (1936-2015) was director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) between 1987 and 1989, and “handled” the Haqqani Network. Under the Kerry-Lugar Act of the aid-giving United States, Pakistan was supposed to act against “the terrorist pockets within its boundaries and against non-state actors it had used in the past and some of whom had now turned against it and were killing innocent Pakistanis.” In 2009, Gul, in an interview to London’s Arab journal Asharq Al-Awsat, explained his personal allegiance to the Afghan warriors “fighting to avenge what took place in Pakistan following the 9/11 attacks.” He added that he had sent his two sons to jihad along with the Afghan jihadi leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Haqqani was the founder of the Network named after him. His tribal connections, fundraising skills, and fluency in Arabic were key assets in his ascension. His Zadran tribe is located on the Afghan-Pakistani border between Loya Paktia and Pakistan’s Waziristan. He drew Gulf money and Arab fighters to the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, even taking an Arab wife from the United Arab Emirates with whom he had a son, Sirajuddin. This link also formed the foundation of the Haqqani Network’s relationship with the Arabs of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is today the most powerful man in the Taliban government as minister of interior. Another person from the clan, Khalilur Rehman Haqqani, is the Minister of Refugees.

Network: a family saga

Jeff M. Smith in War on the Rocks (2021), tells the story of the “family” that dominates the scene in Afghanistan. “The origins of the Haqqani Network date back to a 1973 coup in Afghanistan that brought to power Prime Minister Daoud Khan. When Khan offered shelter, training, and weapons to Baloch insurgents and Pakistani Pashtun nationalists alike, Pakistani intelligence began mobilizing exiled Afghan dissidents like Jalaluddin Haqqani for anti-regime operations. From their base in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in 1975, the Haqqani fighters launched their first attack in Afghanistan, killing 12.

As Sirajuddin began assuming operational control of the Haqqani Network from his aging father around 2005, he expanded the Network’s operations and stretching a campaign of terror to the Afghan capital from its base in Pakistan. Siraj made the Haqqani Network increasingly indispensable to Pakistani intelligence. But in the mid-2000s, militant groups in the Haqqani stronghold of North Waziristan began turning their guns inward, targeting the Pakistani state and civilians, eventually coalescing under the banner of a new Pakistani Taliban in 2007. Pakistani intelligence leaned on the Haqqani Network to broker a series of peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. Siraj used his connections to ‘pressure them to cease attacking [Pakistan’s] security forces’—and attack Afghan and Western forces in Afghanistan instead.”

The rise of Sirajuddin Haqqani

In 2007, the Haqqani Network became “officially affiliated” with the Taliban. Siraj was granted membership to the Taliban Leadership Council and was later appointed head of the Miramshah Shura. U.S. military officials began warning that the Haqqani Network was “becoming more violent and self-serving” under Siraj, who was part of a “younger, more aggressive generation” usurping power from traditional Zadran tribal elders. The Haqqani Network was the first among all Taliban factions to embrace suicide bombing tactics and is believed to have played a role in the July 2008 suicide bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed over 50 people. That was followed by the December 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA outpost in Khost.

In 2011, the Haqqani Network orchestrated a suicide bombing at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, wounded 77 U.S. soldiers in an attack on a U.S. military base, and assaulted the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The same year, Siraj published a violent manifesto advocating global jihad outside Afghanistan’s borders, a departure from his father’s more traditional focus on eastern Afghanistan. It urged Muslims to travel to the West on student visas and attack soft targets, praising Al Qaeda and promoting suicide bombings and beheadings.

Haqqanis vs the U.S.

The Haqqani Network had by now positioned itself in the crosshairs of the United States, which began heavily targeting the group in Loya Paktia and, through drone strikes, in North Waziristan. However, Pakistani intelligence would reportedly “warn Siraj of an impending drone strike, after which he would seek shelter in the mountains surrounding Miramshah,” limiting the United States’ ability to degrade the network’s capabilities in its Pakistani safe havens. In 2011, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen described the Haqqani Network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence. In 2012, Siraj officially assumed control of the network from Jalaluddin. The U.S. State Department responded by banning the group as a terrorist organization. Pakistan “banned” the Haqqani Network in 2015.

The Haqqani Network and the eastern Zadran tribes have historically resisted centralized authority, operating autonomously despite periods of intimate cooperation with the southern Taliban factions. The Taliban ruler in Kabul Mullah Omar died in 2015 propelling Siraj’s rise while exacerbating fissures between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban’s Kandahari leaders. Siraj was named deputy emir of the Taliban under Omar’s immediate successor, Mullah Mansour. With Mullah Omar out of the picture, Siraj reportedly enjoyed final authority over the appointment of Taliban shadow governors.

The Baradar factor

When Kabul fell amid a chaotic U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, Haqqani leaders and Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar sparred over the allocation of ministerial posts and who deserved credit for the Taliban’s victory: Baradar’s political negotiations with the United States in Doha or the Haqqani Network’s brutal battlefield tactics. As head of the Interior Ministry, Siraj oversees internal security and the power to issue passports. He has also secured the right to nominate governors for several eastern Afghan provinces.

According to Jeff M. Smith, Siraj’s uncle, Khalil Haqqani, reportedly enjoys recurring meetings with important personalities in Pakistan and was a “regular visitor to Rawalpindi.” By contrast, Pakistan arrested Baradar in 2010 for daring to explore early peace talks with the United States: “We picked up Baradar and others because they were trying to make a deal without us,” a Pakistani security official told the New York Times that year.

Islamic State and the Network

The Islamic State offshoot has become a point of concern for the international community since it emerged in the region in 2017 and claimed responsibility for the deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in August 2021. Initially comprising disaffected former members of the Pakistani Taliban driven out of North Waziristan by a Pakistani military offensive, the Islamic State in Afghanistan first established a base in eastern Afghanistan. From there it engaged in an increasingly bloody turf war with the Taliban, fighting over territory and recruits.

In 2020, the Islamic State group appointed a former “mid-level Haqqani commander” as its new leader. A 2020 U.N. report noted “most attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Afghanistan demonstrated some degree of involvement, facilitation, or the provision of technical assistance by the Haqqani Network.” In May 2020, the Afghan government busted a joint cell of Haqqani Network and Islamic State fighters. It is notable that the Islamic State’s turf-war with the Taliban has intensified since the fall of Kabul.

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