The notion of the Haqqani network (HQN) committing to breaking ties with al-Qaeda and, especially, renouncing violence – two of the stated U.S. conditions for the Afghanistan reconciliation process to succeed – seems doubtful, given its almost 40-year history and the central role it has played in advancing the jihadist cause.
With longstanding, close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the HQN also remains an important player in Islamabad’s efforts to pursue what it sees as its strategic interests in Afghanistan, including countering Indian influence there.
“All I’ve seen of the Haqqanis would make it hard for me to believe they were reconcilable,” International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledged during a Pentagon press conference by phone on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, a U.S. official briefing reporters on looming talks in Doha between U.S. and Taliban representatives said the Taliban delegates participating with the authorization of Taliban leader Mohammed Omar would also represent the HQN.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. side would be led by the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins.
She said the main focus was to foster dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban, “but there are some issues we, the U.S., want to discuss with the Taliban directly, most notably our concerns about Taliban connections to international terrorism.”
“An important focus for our meetings moving forward with the Taliban will be the need for them to completely and verifiably break with terrorism.”
Psaki said among issues the U.S. will want addressed is the safe release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who “has been gone far too long.” Bergdahl has been held by the HQN since 2009.
Based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district but operating on both sides of the border, the Pashtun-led HQN has been described by ISAF commanders in Afghanistan as one of the most formidable foes faced by coalition forces there.
Recent ISAF incident reports reflect the scale and nature of the threat:
--On Monday, coalition and Afghan forces killed two extremists while searching for a senior HQN leader who “controls a group responsible for attacks against Afghan and coalition forces and facilitates the movement of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices and components.”
--A day earlier, forces killed four extremists while searching for a HQN leader who “commands extremist cells that attack Afghan and coalition forces … and coordinates directly with senior Taliban leadership.”
--Elsewhere the same day, forces killed two extremists during a search for a HQN leader who “procures IED components, builds IEDs and trains extremists in their use … plans suicide IED attacks against Afghan government officials and facilitates the distribution of mines, IEDs, and weapons to extremist cells.”
--On June 6, a HQN leader was arrested while he and associates were “planning to conduct a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack in Khost province.”
--On May 28, forces captured a HQN leader “responsible for kidnappings of Afghan civilians, [who] coordinates the movement of weapons and plans and executes attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.”
The U.S. believes the HQN was responsible for or involved in a number of major terror attacks in Afghanistan, including the deadly July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul (reportedly carried out with ISI involvement, according to communications intercepted by the U.S.); a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA employees in Khost in December 2009; a May 2010 suicide bombing in Kabul that five American soldiers, one Canadian soldier and 12 Afghan civilians; a Sept. 2011 bomb attack on a NATO outpost that killed five Afghans and injured 77 U.S. soldiers; and a Sept. 2011 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
In September 2011, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told a Senate committee that the HQN was a “veritable arm” of the ISI, a statement that triggered an uproar in Pakistan, which consistently denies claims of collusion with the network.
Although the U.S. Treasury Department designated HQN leader Sirajuddin Haqqani as a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2008, it was only last September that the group was designated a foreign terrorist organization – and that step only came after congressional pressure and a legislative deadline.
A recently-published book on the HQN characterizes the network not as just another – if particularly effective – militant group active in the region but rather as one playing a central and complex role, while withstanding decades of war and carefully navigating the currents to avoid inter-mujahedeen fighting
Although it presents itself largely as a local player with local concerns, the network is also a “nexus” entity that has long provided invaluable services to al-Qaeda and other partners in the region, according to Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012, by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler.
The authors, who sources include the HQN’s own publications, write that al-Qaeda’s global jihad has “for several decades, been shaped by the safe haven, training, combat experience, propaganda support, resource mobilization, and networking opportunities facilitated by the Haqqani network.”
Brown and Rassler conclude that the HQN’s historic and recent behavior does not inspire confidence that it will cut ties with “transnationally oriented jihadis.”
“Ideological sympathy and shared support for the broader goals that al-Qaeda represents – surely held by at least some within the group – would be one important reason for not doing so, as would a desire to seek revenge for the losses that both groups have suffered over the last ten years,” they write.
“This skepticism is not to say that a shift in the Haqqanis’ relationship with al-Qaeda is impossible, but rather that such change would mark a significant break with the group’s previous trajectory over the last two and half decades.”