Haqqani network’s clever game culminates with Afghan government roles

As the Afghan government was unveiled this week, the responsibility for delivering on the Taliban’s pledge that it would not provide a safe haven to jihadis was handed to a US-designated “global terrorist” with a $10m FBI bounty on his head.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy Taliban leader and Afghanistan’s new interior minister, heads the ruthless Haqqani network that has been described by one US-based expert as a “criminal enterprise masquerading as a jihadist group”. He is sought by the US in connection with a deadly 2008 Kabul hotel bombing.

His and other militants’ senior roles in government quickly dashed hopes that the Islamists might be more inclusive and tone down their hardline views. It also leaves Washington with little option but to rely on Haqqani’s organisation in spite of its al-Qaeda ties and history of attacks against the US.

“They’re playing a very clever game, keeping the door open to western intelligence agencies. They’ve killed and arrested a few Isis members in the past weeks,” said Kamal Alam, a security expert at the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank. “But on the inclusive government, it’s a big ‘we don’t need you’” to the US.

The rise of the Haqqanis is a reflection of how important the group had been in the fight against the Afghan government and coalition forces, said Ioannis Koskinas, senior fellow at the New America think-tank.

“To the victors go the spoils,” he said. While the US was distracted with the long-running peace talks that preceded its withdrawal, the “Taliban military leadership concentrated on winning the fight on the ground in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis were a key component of the Taliban’s winning strategy.”

The ‘Seeking Information’ poster issued by the FBI for Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is Afghanistan’s new interior minister © FBI via Reuters

Founded by Sirajuddin’s father Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former mujahideen commander, the name is derived from Darul Uloom Haqqani madrassa in north-west Pakistan, dubbed the ‘University of Jihad’.

The Haqqanis were covertly funded by the CIA through Pakistan’s intelligence arm, the ISI, to stage guerrilla strikes against the Soviet Union during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Fluent in Arabic, Jalaluddin nurtured ties with al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and invested heavily in madrassas that served as a recruitment base for new fighters.

When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in retaliation for the September 11 attacks, the Haqqani network retreated from its traditional base of Loya Paktia in southeastern Afghanistan to Pakistan’s North Waziristan province, where it carried out operations from safe houses.

Sirajuddin took over in the mid-2000s, establishing a reputation for high-profile attacks, including a bombing on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people, and an assassination attempt on Afghan president Hamid Karzai in 2008.

Gretchen Peters, an expert on transnational organised crime, said the Haqqani network operated not only as a jihadist force but also as a mafia-like organisation. Its most lucrative revenue streams included extortion, kidnapping for ransom, illegal mining, money laundering, narcotics and fundraising from ideological donors in Arab states, she explained.

She believed that the fight between the Haqqanis and the US had been so long and “brutal” that it would be hard for the two to collaborate. “So many of their family members have been taken out in drone strikes, the notion that the US will be able to work with them in any way is unlikely,” she said.

Yet in 2018, when the US opened talks for an Afghanistan withdrawal deal, the Haqqanis were given a seat at the table. Anas Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s younger brother, was released from prison as part of a prisoner swap deal to join the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar.

Days before the Doha deal was signed in early 2020, Sirajuddin, the most active field commander, wrote a seemingly magnanimous op-ed for the New York Times. “He was the most feared leader, Americans were after him but he did say all the right things the west wanted to hear,” said Zahid Hussain, author of No Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow

Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Overseas Development Institute’s Centre for the Study of Armed Groups, said the US had been laying the groundwork to bring senior Afghan militant leaders into the international fold in order to achieve a bloodless exit — but the Taliban’s armed takeover cut short that process.

“You [now] have a very awkward situation in which the Taliban government and the US are locked into a relationship of mutual dependence,” she said.

Nasratullah Haqpal, a Kabul-based political analyst, said the US “wanted the Taliban to rule and prevent attacks on western states”. In return, they would be willing to support the Taliban “directly or indirectly”.

Koskinas of the New America think-tank pointed to the role of Pakistan, which has had influence over the Taliban and the Haqqanis after providing sanctuary for the Islamist movement for years.

Taliban fighters sit next to street vendors at a market in Kabul on Friday
Taliban fighters sit next to street vendors at a market in Kabul on Friday © AP

“Pakistan certainly has significant leverage over the Haqqanis. It’s a question of converging interests more than control,” he said.

For longtime Afghanistan researchers, the country has come full circle, with the militants in control despite 20 years of war, more than 150,000 deaths and billions of dollars spent.

Sushant Sareen, a security analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said that although the US would pressure the militants through sanctions and use of the global financial system, it would be difficult to make the Taliban or Haqqani network turn their backs on longtime jihadist allies.

“Until now, we thought these were the terrorists — they’re in bed with al-Qaeda,” he said. “Now if you’re telling me they’re going to be partners in fighting terrorism, then please tell me who’s the terrorist?”

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin and Benjamin Parkin in New Delhi

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