Who are the Haqqanis?

After a decade of worrying about the Taliban and the threat they pose to stability in Afghanistan, we are now told, by senior US military planners, that the Haqqani network is the most resilient and hostile militant group active in the region. But who are they?

Written by Ghaffar Hussain on 12 October 2011 at 11pm

After a decade of worrying about the Taliban and the threat they pose to stability in Afghanistan, we are now told, by senior US military planners, that the Haqqani network is the most resilient and hostile militant group active in the region.

This shift in focus comes with the realisation that Afghanistan is struggling with a broad based insurgency that brings together a number of militant groups that share common characteristics but also have their differences.

In the case of the Haqqani network, these differences reveal much about the geo-politics of the area and throw up yet more complexities.

The Haqqani network emerged in the 1980s and consists largely of fighters who grouped around Jalaluddin Haqqani after that period.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Jalaluddin was recognised as one of the key Mujahedeen commanders and he led many successful campaigns against the Soviets. His fluent Arabic, ability to fund raise, organise attacks and motivate fighters meant that he become the beneficiary of an extraordinary amount of CIA and Saudi funds and was closely courted by Pakistan’s ISI.

In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, Jalaluddin developed a functional and co-operative relationship with the Taliban and maintained his close ties with Pakistan and Gulf donors.

The Taliban were fearful of taking him on and so sought to integrate him into their power structure without making him a part of their inner circle.

Jalaluddin shared their conservative outlook, he is also a Deobandi (a movement of Sunni Islam), but he didn’t share their political ambition and he had little time for the international Jihadism of al-Qaeda.

Pakistan continued to view him as an asset through which it could implement its ‘strategic depth’ policy and certain wealthy gulf based donors felt their financial assistance would allow Afghanistan to maintain its austere religious character.

This cosy arrangement came under threat after 9/11. Jalaluddin was too important and well-connected for Pakistan to simply dump and he was not about to turn against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

ISAF and Karzai, along with Pakistan, initially tried to convince him to switch sides but the talks failed and Jalalauddin has been fighting ISAF and ANA troops ever since.

The Haqqani network today is led by his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and is rumoured to have between 10,000-15,000 fighters. They are believed to be behind some of the most ambitious attacks against ISAF and the ANA in recent years and are the pioneers of suicide bombing and remote detonated bombs in the region.

The US has accused Pakistan of maintaining a strong working relationship with them and this has been the source of much tension between the two countries in recent weeks.

The Haqqani network enjoys a number of unique advantages which allow it to remain resilient.

Firstly, its core support base lies in the Pashtun tribal areas near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. This allows it to target US Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Paktia, Paktiya and Khost, and rely upon deep tribal links in the area for support.

The Haqqanis have been operating in this area since the 1980s so they have well established supply routes and they can withdraw into Pakistani territory and re-emerge at will.

Secondly, the Haqqanis have not been targeted by Pakistani troops at all and are widely rumoured to have a very congenial relationship with Pakistan.

This wouldn’t be surprising given the historical links they share and with the Haqqanis being less ideologically motivated, it would be easier for Pakistan to cut a mutually beneficial deal with them. After all, Pakistan has very few allies in Afghanistan and it needs to make best use of what little it does have, even if they are suicidal fanatics.

Thirdly, they are experienced, well armed and battle hardened. These are essentially people who have been fighting guerrilla warfare their entire adult lives; it’s all they know and they are unlikely to stop any time soon. From their perspective, the presence of foreign troops is the problem and they will fight until they are gone.

So just as with the Taliban, it is very difficult to defeat such groups militarily and there must inevitably be a political settlement.

In the meantime, US drones continue to target the Haqqanis in Pakistan’s FATA area whilst Islamabad and Washington continue to debate how best to tackle them.

True to form in a war that is now in its second decade, the only thing for sure in this equation is that nothing will be straight forward. 

Ghaffar Hussain is head of the outreach and training unit at Britain’s first counter extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation

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