Afghanistan has long been a place where hope is in short supply. Its neighbours are hostile and meddlesome. Its government and institutions are corrupt and weak. And despite the presence of thousands of NATO troops, security is elusive thanks to Taliban bombs and bullets. Now this unhappy country faces yet another threat, one that predates the Taliban and may be competing with it at the behest of the Pakistani military as the clock winds down towards NATO’s withdrawal.
On the morning of September 13, six men disguised in burqas entered a partially-built high-rise in Kabul which overlooks both the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters. Within minutes, they were raining fire down on both buildings with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. For 20 hours they paralyzed the city and held off hundreds of Afghan troops, police and Western Special Forces while four other attackers with suicide vests prowled the city in search of targets. By the next day, all 10 attackers—along with 11 civilians and five police officers—lay dead. It was the longest and most wide-ranging attack on the Afghan capital since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
One week later, two men claiming to be a personal messengers of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar were ushered into the house of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan government’s main peace envoy to the Taliban. One of them—with a bomb hidden in his turban—embraced Rabbani before detonating his explosives, killing the elderly diplomat.
Both attacks have been attributed to the Haqqani network, a shadowy group based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. It is allied with, but not beholden to, the Quetta Shura (Pakistani Taliban). Compared to the Taliban’s typical ranks of madrassa-schooled, bomb-planting dullards, the Haqqanis field professional soldiers—many of them trained and battle-tested abroad—who are steeped in complex areas of combat, such as urban warfare, night fighting and psychological operations. A U.S. defense official recently told the Wall Street Journal that the Haqqanis are one of the most potent forces in the Afghan war, calling them “world-class fighters, whether we like it or not.”
Its Afghan founder and leader is 71-year old Jalaluddin Haqqani, an extremely capable guerrilla commander who led Mujahideen fighters against the Soviet invasion of his country and a former minister for border and tribal affairs in Taliban-run Afghanistan. According to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and journalist, Haqqani’s main motivation is influence and control, not religious zeal. “He wants to be the commander in chief of the Eastern [Afghan] provinces,” he says. “He doesn’t necessarily want to be Prime Minister or President. He wants control over Eastern Pashtun.”
Rashid believes the Haqqani network is funded through multiple sources, including donations from Gulf Arab states, kidnapping, ransom, convoy protection, taxes, and drug trafficking. It also has ties to Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a relationship that was Pakistan’s worst-kept secret until the former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen called it “a veritable arm of the ISI” in a September Senate hearing.
The ISI has long pursued a strategy of retaining proxy forces to do its dirty work, mainly against its arch-rival, India. For years, the Taliban were considered a reliable ally in countering Indian influence in Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, combined with recent revelations that the Taliban were involved in secret peace negotiations with the Americans and the Afghan government without Pakistani involvement, have strained the Taliban/ISI relationship. This has afforded the Haqqanis an opportunity for a broader role in ISI operations. As well, the Haqqanis have displayed proficiency in attacking Indian interests in Afghanistan—such as its embassy in 2008, as well as several construction companies—to the delight of the Pakistani military.
“The Haqqani network is a loyal asset and when you come to the end game in Afghanistan as you are now,” says Rashid. “The Pakistanis and the ISI are not so willing to trust the Quetta Shura as they are the Haqqani network.”
This would explain the assassination of former Afghan President Rabbani, whose efforts at peace were at odds with Pakistan’s strategic interests. John R. Schmidt, author and former political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, argues in a recent article in Foreign Policy.
“What possible motive, after all, could [Pakistan] have for supporting forces that are engaged in a nasty guerrilla war against their ostensible American allies in Afghanistan?” Schmidt writes. “The reason is simple: The Pakistanis fear that if these Taliban forces are defeated, the United States will abandon the country, leaving behind what they believe will be a hostile Afghan government allied to their mortal enemy, India.”
With its faith in the Taliban somewhat shaken, it is likely that the ISI will come to rely more heavily on the Haqqanis. After Admiral Mullen’s comments on the Haqqani-ISI link, anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan reached a fever pitch, with politicians, military officials and media pundits lashing out at America and darkly hinting at an impending U.S. invasion. If Mullen’s aim was to pressure Pakistan into modifying its behaviour, it has backfired spectacularly.
“It’s made things much more difficult for the Americans and Pakistanis to get back on an even keel,” says Rashid. “Pakistan feels humiliated, and this has made [Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff] General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani immeasurably stronger vis-à-vis the domestic situation inside Pakistan. It has relegated the civilian government almost to the sidelines. I think this is a very dangerous situation because it could possibly lead to another coup.”
For Afghanistan, the rise of the Haqqani network is very bad news. Its attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO’s Afghan headquarters is clear evidence that it has infiltrated the Afghan security establishment. Not only did the attackers pass through several checkpoints en route to their target, they arrived to a weapons cache far larger than six men could possibly carry. Similarly, the Rabanni assassination reveals a level of guile that will cast a chill on any future peace talks, as diplomats will understandably be shy about meeting Taliban emissaries.
Whether or not NATO stays beyond its 2014 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, its presence is not permanent, a fact not lost on its enemies. The only question is, will they work in concert to reassert control over the hapless country, or will they fight amongst themselves in a redux of the civil war of the early 90s? In any event, the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Pakistan have all the time in the world.