By Vinay Kaura
Why Islamabad has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to American calls for targeting the Haqqani Network? Understanding the complex dynamics surrounding the Haqqani network, including the extent to which it is supported by Pakistan and what this ultimately means for the future of peace in South Asia is very crucial to answer this question. Haqqani network, engaged in an intensely violent campaign to overthrow the Ashraf Ghani government, is Pakistan’s reliable card in Afghan quagmire. That is why Pakistan has always provided the organization with a critical lifeline. Actually, Haqqanis are nothing but the sickening symptom of Pakistan’s preoccupation with India and the disproportionate role of its army in national security decision-making.
According to noted journalist Ahmed Rashid, when General Pervez Musharraf was forced to make a U-turn in Pakistan’s Afghan policy in 2001, Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder leader of the Haqqani Network, is reported to have made the observation: “On Pakistan’s Eastern border is India-Pakistan’s perennial enemy. With the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has an unbeatable two-thousand-three-hundred-kilometer strategic depth… Does Pakistan really want a new government, which will include pro-India people in it, thereby wiping out this strategic depth?” More than anything else, it is this pro-Pakistan legacy that has shaped the way in which the Haqqani network has come to be deeply absorbed into the fabric of Pakistan’s strategic architecture. It is worth mentioning that gaining ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India is an ultimate objective of Pakistan’s rulers who seek it because it remains a powerfully pernicious idea they are not able to forgot, a guidepost they feel compelled to return to in every moment of strategic re-evaluation. These ideas, however, have undermined peace and prosperity—invariably with very deadly results—in South Asia.
Haqqani’s connection with the ISI is not new; the latter has maintained ties with the Haqqanis since the times of the anti-Soviet jihad. Jalaluddin Haqqani received significant support from the ISI and CIA, and built up a sizable militia force during years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Jalaluddin, at the behest of the ISI, sided with the Taliban in the bloody civil war in the 1990s. After becoming a relatively unimportant minister in the short-lived Taliban government, he continued to uphold close links to the ISI and to al-Qaeda while remaining formally loyal to Mullah Omar. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the key organizers of al-Qaida’s escape from Afghanistan. He not only helped the jihadists to escape, but also gave them refuge in Miranshah, the organizational base of the Haqqani network.
Clan-based and hierarchical, the Haqqanis are formally allied with the Taliban, but have developed greater degree of independence in deciding their targets for attacks on American and Afghan forces. Sirajuddin Haqqani took over the organisation from his father Jalaluddin Haqqani after the latter’s semiretirement. Fiercely anti-Indian, Sirajuddin Haqqani is said to be more ruthless than his father. He has been working to expand his father’s traditional base by seeking closer ties with foreign terrorist groups. The Haqqanis have amassed immense wealth from its legitimate businesses as well as illegitimate criminal enterprises on both sides of the Durand Line. The Haqqanis control large segments of the tribal area in North Waziristan from where they run a parallel administration with their own courts, tax offices and recruiting centres, with Pakistan army turning a blind eye.
Pakistan’s military leadership has always been dismissive of allegations of its ties with the Haqqanis, but evidence clearly points to the deep involvement of the ISI in saveing its ‘strategic asset’. According to recently declassified US State Department cable: “There were two meetings between the ISI-D and the Haqqani network leadership in December 2009. The first discussed funding for operations in Khost province. These funds were later provided to tribal elders in Khost province for their support of the Haqqani network. The second meeting involved ISI-D direction to the Haqqani networks to expedite attack preparations and lethality in Afghanistan”. The ISI is reported to have paid $200000 to the Haqqani Network for a suicide attack on a CIA camp in Afghanistan in 2009. In 2012, the US designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group.
Although Sirajuddin had given some vague hints of joining the peace talks some years ago, the US failed to bring the Haqqani Network to the negotiating table because Sirajuddin was willing to negotiate with the US only as a partner of the Afghan Taliban, and not independently. Haqqani network’s unstoppable rise is attributable to Pakistan’s desire to manipulate Afghan political affairs after all remaining US troops pull out of Afghanistan. Rolling back the influence of India in Afghanistan is another priority. The ISI has been instrumental in engineering a pact in 2015 through which Sirajuddin became the deputy leader to the Taliban. This tactically shrewd move is meant to give him protection from the Americans in the eventuality of a negotiated settlement as well as a greater role in appointing shadowy Taliban governors, whereas the Taliban has received lethal military expertise from the Haqqanis. This year’s spectacular resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, significantly aided by Pakistani military, has been coming through a well-planned campaign, an important element of which is systematic support from Haqqani network. There is no sign thus far of an effective Afghan government counterattack.
Pakistan’s counterterrorism commitments are a height of hypocrisy. The Pakistani military has always pursued the dubious policy of not targeting the so-called ‘good jihadists’, who do not attack Pakistan, because they are seen as mitigating Pakistan’s strategic vulnerabilities vis-à-vis India. Zarb-e-Azb, the much-trumpeted military offensive against the terrorists, has so far targeted only the ‘bad jihadists’, like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which attacks the Pakistani State, but has deliberately failed to impact Pakistan’s patronage of the Haqqani network. With the policy of making distinctions between good and bad terrorists in place, the Haqqani network is damaging the prospects for peace and stability in the region. Thus Pakistan’s counter-terror narrative would continue to sound hollow in Afghanistan as long as Islamabad does not hit the Haqqani network in a hard way.
Despite mounting evidence of continuing Haqqani network-ISI collusion, there is inexplicable reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to take tough action against Pakistan for sabotaging peace in Afghanistan where its policies have directly undermined US interests. It remains a somewhat delicate policy area for the US government given its linkages to potential danger of breakdown in its ties with Pakistan. When Haqqani network’s hand was revealed in last month’s deadly terrorist attack in Kabul in which more than 70 people were killed, the US merely expressed “concerns” about Pakistan’s “continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups, such as the Haqqani network, operating from Pakistani soil”. Despite this high-level frustration at Islamabad for not cooperating against the Haqqani network, nothing much has been done by Washington. And in the waning days of an administration in search of a legacy, nothing much can be expected from Washington. Change in the policy seems frozen indefinitely.