More on the Haqqani Network


I just attended a fascinating event today (November 9, 2010) organized by the New America Foundation (which by the way has shown an ability at times to be one of the more exciting think tanks in DC, at least in my opinion), on regional dynamics in South Asia – which was basically the subject of my thesis. It felt oddly comfortable to step back into many familiar issues, and all the more stimulating to hear panelists offer analyses I hadn’t fully considered and perspectives I lacked sufficient knowledge to explore (such as Malik Naveed Khan, a former Inspector General of the Pakistani Police who led the effort to recruit, train and organize the police in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province).

David Rohde, the NYT journalist who was detained by the militants belonging to or affiliated with the Haqqani network for several months before actually managing to escape, gave a very interesting presentation on the Haqqani network based on what he had observed during his captivity (for more on this issue, check out the 5-part account he wrote for the New York Times in October 2009). Using a phrase he had employed in the first article of that series, he described the Haqqani network as “a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious group.” There appear to be many different factions within the Haqqani network, often competing with each other for resources. Basically, the Haqqani network comes across as a group motivated first and foremost by profit. In this light, it kind of reminded me of the Columbian FARC whose main goal now seems to be controlling at least some of the drug trade to sustain itself. At the same time, David Rohde presented the tribal network as a fulcrum where young Afghans and Pakistanis are immersed in foreign militants’ worldview and goal of establishing an extremist caliphate (I’ve basically paraphrased, if not outright quoted, David Rohde here – the only reason I didn’t put quotation marks is due the possibility I may have changed a word or two and wouldn’t want to wrongly attribute something to David Rohde).

The point is, starting from an understanding of the Haqqani network as something very different from the prior, ideologically-motivated iteration, still leads to same phenomenon of radicalization. I also feel that it gives even more reasons to believe that Pakistani influence may be waning. Indeed, if the movement develops or identifies strong interests of its own, such as ensuring multiple sources of income, then it may accept Pakistani support as long as this relationship doesn’t hinder its aforementioned interest. However, the Haqqani network leadership wouldn’t necessarily comply with a request emanating from its Pakistani contacts if they felt that what was being asked of them to further perceived Pakistani objectives required the Haqqani network to take actions that might negatively affect the objectives it was pursuing for itself. There is of course excellent literature on Islamic radical ideologies, which isn’t a topic I know enough about to truly comment on; one document that does come to mind is this report written by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS.

Furthermore, David Rohde also mentioned certain anecdotes which tend to suggest a radicalization of the network is indeed occurring. His Haqqani guards apparently saw the Taleban as victim of a Christian-Jewish threat, and did not consider people living in large cities such as Kabul or Islamabad to be true Muslims, and hence cheered the bombing of mosques there. Sunni extremist movements such as these represent a threat not only to foreigners, not only to Pakistani Shi’a, and not only to governmental officials, but to all Muslims who don’t prescribe to their extreme worldview. Ayesha Siddiqa has done some fascinating if polemic work on the issue of Sunni extremism and its consequences for Pakistan’s internal stability that’s worth looking into for more on this subject.

Whether it is increasingly becoming an organization relying on a radical, extremist worldview to mobilize, or whether it is on the contrary preoccupied first and foremost by maintaining its revenue and its hold on the its traditional stronghold, the Haqqani network appears to be undergoing a certain evolution. The consequence of this may be that it is beginning to evade Pakistan’s grasp. Indeed, during the New America event, it was suggested that those Pakistani elements who maintain the policy of supporting or sheltering from reprisal the Haqqani network may be overestimating their own capacity to actually control the movement. This miscalculation would be similar to that of Pakistani authorities who long tolerated extremist indoctrination, for instance by the Red Mosque in Islamabad, until one day, following violent vigilante actions by young men and women coming from the Mosque, the Pakistani polity and military commanders found themselves confronted with a hotbed of radicalism defying the authority of the Pakistani army and the Pakistani state. The ensuing siege of course created a tremendous backlash among the large number of people who had been educated in the iconic Red Mosque or by someone who had spent time there (in the 1980s, 1990s, or more recently): hence the Pakistani Taleban. (This quick narrative of the emergence of the Pakistani Taleban is a slight over-simplification of course, but not fully without merit I believe).

Getting back to the Haqqani network, by allowing radicalism to fester unchecked in its midst in North Waziristan and the surrounding areas under its control, elements of the Pakistani security establishment may not be cultivating an effective hedge against a post-ISAF Afghanistan but rather increasing the possibility if not the likelihood of the network distancing itself from Pakistani objectives. Containing the spillover of the radicalization of a group of poorly educated people with a ready access to weapons implies a rational interlocutor who may have once existed but may have since be supplanted by a set of leaders less open to pragmatic decisions, whose sympathies and loyalties lie elsewhere, or who feel that to challenge the new tendencies might jeopardize their own power over the network. By the way, we can’t discount the possibility that the Haqqani network may in fact be playing its Pakistani “handlers” by exploiting India-Pakistan tensions to ensure continued support from them. 

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haqqani Network