Haqqani Network 2.0: From Local Actor to Ideological Foe?


Note: this article builds on thoughts I expressed in my previous entry, “The Way Forward: Building Partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” If you have the time (it’s not very long at all), and are so inclined, I suggest checking it out. And what was true then is true now: nothing I say, write or suggest reflects the position of anyone but myself.

A new think tank was recently founded in Washington, the Institute for the Study of War, which has already begun to establish itself as a key source of information on and analysis of issues pertaining to military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite its conservative leanings, and my own liberal ones, it seems to me to be pretty non-partisan, aiming simply to provide reliable and in-depth analyses of current conflicts. Indeed, I’ve find every event I’ve attended and every report I’ve read from them to be excellent – both very informative and quite thought-stimulating, which is what every think tank ought to aspire to. In addition to their events and reports, they’ve put several very useful maps on their website. By the way, their ability to present complex information and situations in simple language is a quality that is all too easily overlooked by analysts and researchers.

I’m mentioning the ISW for two reasons (and no, they haven’t offered me a job, nor have I applied for one, just to be clear): first, as I said, it deserves recognition. Second, and more to the point here on this blog, the ISW recently published a fascinating report on the Haqqani network, by Jeffrey Dressler. It’s not too long, very well researched, and provides the history of one of the most important yet least well understood actors of the Afghan conflict, the Haqqani network (if the 40-ish pages rebut you, please read at least the executive summary; it’s just one page). I don’t intend to summarize the whole report, it contains too many interesting pieces of information, and I wouldn’t want to discourage people from reading it. However, I will attempt to lay out a few elements on the network to give readers a minimal background for my own comments and thoughts I will develop below.

The Haqqani network and its historical roots


Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani movement (“The Haqqani network” p. 7)

The network was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani who made a name for himself as a fearless and skilful military commander fighting against the Soviets in South-East Afghanistan from his base in North Waziristan in the 1980s. He received training and support from the Pakistani services (the oft-mentioned but little understood ISI-D, Interservices Intelligence – Directorate), with whom he is believed to maintain a close relationship. In the 1990s, the Haqqani network developed a pragmatic but never very close relationship with the Taleban led by the Mullah Omar.


Map: the Haqqani network’s traditional stronghold – the Afghan province of Khost and the Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan (“The Haqqani network” p. 11).

Revival and evolution since 2002-2003


Sirajuddin (Siraj) Haqqani, with a picture of his wanted poster (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti). The U.S. is today offering a $5 million award for his capture.

Since 2002-2003, the operational dimension of the network has experienced a revival under the leadership of Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin (known as Siraj) Haqqani (Jalaluddin is rumored to be in poor health; having lived since approximately 1950 in some pretty inhospitable, under-developed mountainous regions probably hasn’t helped). Siraj is believed to espouse more extremist views than his father, which may be relevant for several reasons. First, the Haqqani network is believed to protect several key Al Qaeda figures – Jalaluddin has apparently a close personal relationship with several of them that goes back to the 1980s and was deepened in the 1990s. Under his son, there have been reported increases in the influx of foreign fighters, providing training but also access to weapons. The advent of the Haqqani network as a preeminent military force in Afghanistan, marked by several dramatic attacks, including the 2008 terrorist attack against the Indian embassy in Kabul (Siraj has apparently ushered in the use of suicide bombers, a tactic hitherto never espoused by the movement that wasn’t known for its extremist views. This isn’t to say it was made up of progressive thinkers, but that relative to others in the region, the Haqqani network under Jalaluddin didn’t stand out as an ideological movement but as a pragmatic and potent regional force) has brought the movement increased visibility internationally. In other terms, the embrace of more extremist views and more radical methods – and perhaps more importantly, the role Siraj’s personal beliefs play in the movement’s motivations and choice of actions –, fueled by increasingly tight ties with jihadist groups, has helped the network benefit more and more from financing from foreign movements in the Arab world that provide money to Al Qaeda.

This evolution has led to what one might be tempted to call the “Haqqani network 2.0”: a potent military force, with proven operational capacities, increasingly driven by an extremist ideological agenda, less beholden to Pakistani services than under Jalaluddin, more dependent under Siraj on financing and support from extremist groups. The network appears to be ridding itself of its regional roots and specificities as it takes on this new international, ideological-driven mantle. By this I mean it appears to be evolving from a local group aspiring to control its immediate surroundings that functions as an instrument within the framework of regional struggles (the Pakistanis’ agenda in Afghanistan) into one that pursues military actions with a new ideological motivation and is less subject to the influence of regional actors. This new role has brought it increased visibility, closer ties with jihadist groups and through them more support and financing from foreign sources. As Jeffrey Dressler has written elsewhere, “The only thing more unlikely than a negotiated settlement with the Haqqanis is the prospect of the group breaking ties with al-Qaeda. (…) Under Siraj's leadership, the Haqqani network is increasingly dependent on international, fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations for funding, training, and ideological credential.”

It has even less reason than before to negotiate with the international coalition in Afghanistan, which would demand that it sever ties with Al Qaeda and other groups, or to cooperate with the Afghan government; however, I would suggest that another potential consequence of equal if not greater importance I can see stemming from the movement’s evolution under Siraj Haqqani is that Pakistan’s influence over it may be lessening.

Implications of the network’s evolution

Indeed, Pakistan today undoubtedly still provides a certain amount of support to the Haqqani network, under various guises (one form of assistance being the avoidance of taking military action targeting the network). This probably also explains by extension why Pakistan hasn’t targeted more actively those Al Qaeda leaders believed to be in North Waziristan – to avoid jeopardizing the relationship with the Haqqani network. However, like I argued in “The Way Forward,” it is not clear that support translates into influence. Pakistan today may view itself as “forced” to continue supporting the Haqqani network in hopes of maintaining ties with it that would enable Pakistan to influence events in Afghanistan. Indeed, in light of the Haqqani network’s new sources of financing and support, the Pakistanis may very well fear losing any influence over the only remaining group at their disposal that has remained an effective force in Afghanistan that they can hope to influence, given:

- the uncertainties surrounding the level of control that key members of the Taleban leadership known as the Quetta Shura actually exert over military commanders in the field (Pakistani services apparently allow the Mullah Omar little contact with the outside world, and it’s easy to imagine that the new Taleban fighters that have appeared since 2002-2003 feel a stronger allegiance to their commanders, who apparently strongly resent Pakistani attempts to control or manipulate them, than to a group of men that have fled Afghanistan),

- and the continued failure of Hekmatyar Gulbuddin to assert himself and the Hizb-e-Islami – Gulbuddin (HIG) as a key actor effectively controlling large swaths of territory with a hefty and capable fighting force.

In this context, there are two possible postures Pakistan could opt for: a desperate stiffening of its position of support for the Haqqani network in hopes that it doesn’t get removed from the equation, or enacting a dramatic 180-degree shift that would recognize the difference between today’s Haqqani network and that of the past. The latter option would entail a break with what has basically been Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan since the 1980s, a recognition that its policy of seeking to influence its neighbor through support of proxy militant groups has failed, and therefore would require boldly looking at the situation in a new light full of risks and unknowns. This appears to be all the less likely as Pakistan continues to harbor doubts not only of the U.S.’s staying power, but also of its intentions and the degree to which the U.S. is likely, today as well as under other leadership in the future, to view Pakistani concerns as legitimate and to take them into account. Indeed, given America’s own (and understandable) doubts about Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate and to embrace its goals, the probability of the U.S. trying to go behind Pakistan’s back in negotiating a settlement is high. The only problem is, American presence isn’t guaranteed in the region – Pakistan’s is. Pakistan doesn’t trust the U.S. any more than it does the Afghan government; neither of the two latter in turn trust it, nor do they fully trust each other. In this context, reported attempts by the Afghan government to reach out to elements of the Haqqani network in an effort to reduce the latter’s recruiting pool may represent the best hope for now (in addition to sustaining the current “clandestine” campaign waged by the U.S. against the network, which is a given). However, as this article shows, many questions surround this report, and reasons to be skeptical (in its original sense of withholding belief to place the burden of proof on the other) abound.

I realize I’m ending this post without providing any real insights or options for the future – I was hoping to have some, but unfortunately I don’t, and the complexity of the situation makes me shun away from prescribing solutions. If there were simple answers, they’d been found by now by someone among the many people far smarter than me. However, stepping back to understand the evolving situation and the implications of the trends is a key prerequisite to at the very least avoiding blunders and hopefully devising or tweaking a productive and balanced policy whence effective strategies derive. Perhaps a good start would be for the U.S. to try to underscore the Haqqani network drift away from Pakistani influence, and try to illustrate the dangers that the Haqqani network 2.0 may ultimately pose to Pakistan itself:

- by allowing jihadist groups to foster, the Haqqani network may be favoring the emergence of a new generation estranged from the Pakistani state, defined more by extremist religious beliefs than by their Pakistani identity, with potential implications such as support for groups like the Pakistani Taleban that emerged in response to the July 2007 storming of Lal Masjid in Islamabad;

- or the U.S. could highlight the dangers associated with harboring a movement that is providing shelter to a group that could plan, directly inspire or provide support to a terrorist attack against the United States (this approach resembles the one adopted by the Jim Jones and Leon Panetta after the failed Times Square bombing). Indeed, such an attack would lead not only lead to U.S. action against these groups on a larger scale than envisioned beforehand, but also make the U.S. administration less disposed to taking Pakistani concerns into consideration in its own deliberations regarding the region.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haqqani Network