February issue 2010
Bone of Contention
Predictably, the Afghan government and its intelligence agencies have blamed the Haqqani network for the recent daring attack in downtown Kabul. The city was paralysed as Taliban militants fought close to Arg, the presidential palace, where President Hamid Karzai was administering the oath of office to his new cabinet.
This was to be expected because the Haqqanis, a powerful group aligned to Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, is routinely blamed for all major coordinated attacks involving multiple suicide bombers in Kabul. It is a common belief among the Afghan and western security officials that only the Haqqani group has the expertise and committed fighters willing to launch such daring and spectacular attacks in the Afghan capital.
The Haqqani network, the name given to it by the US-led coalition forces but not much used by the group itself, is named after Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, the legendary Afghan mujahideen commander who fought against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s and later joined the Taliban to become a minister in the Taliban government in the mid-90s. Haqqani was the first mujahideen commander to set up a complex of training camps named Zhawara in Khost province that was later also used by Osama bin Laden and other Arab fighters. He was also the first to establish a radio channel exclusively for the mujahideen and was the first commander to capture a major city, Khost, in Afghanistan following the pullout of the Soviet Red Army forces.
Haqqani, indeed, is the founder of the Haqqani network but it is now led by his 29-year-old son Sirajuddin Haqqani. The elder Haqqani is old and ailing and for the first time last year his family released a videotape in which he was declaring his loyalty to the Taliban and its head Mullah Omar, reiterating the call for ‘jihad’ against the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and passing on some of his skills as a guerrilla leader to his men. The video established that Haqqani was alive, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
The Haqqanis migrated to Pakistan’s North Waziristan from the adjoining Khost province in 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The family has been living near Miramshah since then and has had close contacts with the Pakistani military establishment. Houses belonging to the Haqqanis and their supporters in North Waziristan have been attacked by US drones on quite a few occasions but the missiles have mostly killed women, children and other civilians. The Haqqanis’ presence in Pakistan and their links with the military have become a bone of contention between Islamabad and Washington, as the latter is pushing the Pakistan government and the army to take action against the family. The dispute could cause deterioration in their already uneasy relationship and increase their mistrust of each other.
The extended Haqqani family has now been fighting for three decades, first against the Soviets and now the Americans and their allies. According to family sources, more than 50 members have been killed in battle while resisting foreign occupiers. This doesn’t include those family members who were killed during the last two years in missile strikes by the CIA-operated pilotless drone planes. Omar Haqqani, the 17-year-old son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, was killed in a battle with foreign forces in the Sato Kandao area in Khost in late 2008.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, addressed as Khalifa by his men, is the second among the eight sons of the elder Haqqani. The US has announced a reward of $5 million for his capture, raising the amount from $200,000 following the realisation that the Haqqani network is now the most dangerous Taliban group in Afghanistan. The amount of head-money places him second in terms of importance in the Taliban hierarchy after Mullah Omar.
In a rare interview with this writer more than a year ago at a mud compound at the place where Pakistan’s Kurram Agency borders Afghanistan’s Khost province, Sirajuddin Haqqani claimed a growing number of Muslim fighters from many nations were joining the Taliban ranks to fight the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. He argued that unjust US policies and its occupation of Islamic countries was the reason for Muslim volunteers to come to Afghanistan and fight for the Taliban. However, he declined to provide the numbers or specify the nationalities of these fighters.
In that interview, the younger Haqqani denied the allegation that Islamabad was helping his network and other Afghan Taliban groups. He argued that the Taliban had no need to seek Pakistan’s cooperation in the war against western forces in Afghanistan, and would not get it even they wanted it. “Most Taliban members were arrested in Pakistan. Neither Pakistan nor any other country is helping the Taliban. Where is the evidence that we have bases in Pakistan? We don’t need sanctuaries in Pakistan because we have permanent bases in liberated parts of Afghanistan,” he argued when asked about reports that he and other Taliban commanders were mostly hiding in Pakistan.
In reply to a question about his role in resolving disputes between warring Pakistani Taliban commanders, Sirajuddin Haqqani maintained that the Afghan Taliban, as a matter of policy, confined their activities to Afghanistan and refrained from interfering in Pakistan’s affairs. “All our attention is on Afghanistan. But we do have spiritual ties to our brother mujahideen (Taliban) in Pakistan,” he stressed.
He claimed he had about 2,000 fighters in his group. “Four to five years ago, the Taliban were on the defensive. Now the tribes have risen and people are volunteering to join us. We are now on the offensive,” he said.
Asked about Taliban war strategy, Sirajuddin Haqqani explained that they wanted to tire out the Americans and their allies. “Taliban fighters launch guerrilla attacks in groups of 15 to 20. The objective is to harass the enemy rather than capturing a place. In Taliban strongholds such as Helmand, 200-300 Taliban fighters take part in the attacks,” he said.
He maintained that he had never met bin Laden and his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and had no contact with them.
The young commander accepted responsibility for some of the major attacks in Kabul. Claiming to have infiltrated the Afghan government, he said men loyal to the Taliban provided information about the movement of Afghan and NATO forces and facilitated Taliban attacks. Without providing any evidence, he also claimed soldiers from among the US-led coalition forces sent messages to the Taliban to seek safe passage for their convoys. He added that all foreign soldiers would be treated with respect and given amnesty in case they surrendered.
Recently, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in another interview, insisted that President Barack Obama’s recent decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan would not save the US from a ‘historic’ defeat. “Obama has gone the Bush way. More American soldiers mean more deaths. And the US president wants to start withdrawing his soldiers in July 2011. How can America succeed in 18 months after having failed to defeat the Taliban in eight years?” he argued.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.