The surprising realpolitik of the new Haqqani network

The group is building early bridges with one-time enemies such as the US and India, and testing relations with old ally Pakistan

A Taliban fighter holds a poster of late Afghan leader of the Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani. AFP
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Very strange things have been happening between the Taliban and the US ever since an American drone killed Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri last July in a Kabul house, which reportedly belonged to the top aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban minister and a leader in the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the Taliban movement.

Instead of escalating tensions, we saw two diplomatic breakthroughs. Meanwhile, Taliban forces have clashed with Pakistan on the border. And as this has been happening, Mr Haqqani has publicly reached out to India, despite the fact that his network’s suicide bombers had repeatedly struck New Delhi’s Afghan embassy in the past.

For a decade and a half, the Haqqanis have been portrayed in the US and India as little more than an exceptionally violent proxy for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military's primary intelligence agency, with a side mission of supporting global jihad. But recent events validate the vast amounts of evidence painstakingly assembled by scholars, analysts and journalists over the years, which charts the Haqqanis’ extraordinary rise from obscurity to infamy, and now perhaps respectability in some quarters. This data convincingly demonstrates that the Haqqanis have never been subservient; instead they have fiercely guarded their strategic autonomy by cultivating alliances with a range of players who are often enemies with each other.

The Haqqanis have refrained from threatening vengeance for the American missile strike that killed Al Zawahiri on July 31. They have instead chosen to pretend as if the assassination simply did not happen. This is a sign of shifting priorities, a signal that they value a working relationship with Washington over proving their ideological commitment to jihad. Meanwhile, on the very same day of Al Zawahiri’s killing, Sirajuddin Haqqani gave a high-profile interview to the Indian cable news channel News18, promising security for Indian businesses and promoting cricket ties – he’s a huge fan of the sport.

On September 19, the Haqqanis released an American engineer Mark Frerichs, who they had kidnapped back in January 2020, in exchange for a key Afghan drug lord and Taliban financier named Haji Bashar Noorzai. This is the exchange that the Taliban had sought ever since they took Mr Frerichs captive.

Only a few days earlier, a compromise had been struck on an even thornier issue. The US Treasury transferred some $3.5 billion out of the $9bn former Afghan government’s frozen reserves into a Swiss-based trust fund that is meant to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. This reduces the enormous financial pressures on the Taliban government without putting the money in their hands.

These pragmatic solutions were built on the back of previous overtures. An important one is the tacit co-operation between the US and the Taliban against a common enemy, namely ISIS-Khorasan, the terror group’s offshoot in Afghanistan.

In retrospect, the clearest signal was a February 2020 column published in The New York Times by none other than Sirajuddin Haqqani himself, expressing a desire for "friendly relations with all countries", and for the US to support Afghan reconstruction and development once it withdrew. The Haqqanis' actions appear to have been broadly in line with this thinking.

One explanation for all these developments would be that the Haqqanis have freed themselves from the ISI’s grip. But the evidence from a range of credible sources, including the 97,000 internal Al Qaeda documents retrieved during the 2011 Bin Laden raid and closely analysed by Dr Nelly Lahoud, tells us a very different story, one that pushes us to question prior assumptions.

Published as The Bin Laden Papers, they reveal the Haqqanis' impressive ability to simultaneously maintain trust with both the Pakistani military and Al Qaeda, even as the two spiralled into enmity with each other after 9/11. Similarly, the Haqqanis maintained a close relationship with both Pakistan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan even while the Pakistan and the TTP fought each other, round after bloody round from 2007 onwards. Corroborating accounts can be found in Bette Dam’s recent study of Mullah Omar, Looking for the Enemy, as well as works by Vahid Brown and Leah Farrall.

Pakistani leverage over the Haqqanis in the form of material support, medical care and a safe haven has not been enough to get them to give up the TTP. Instead, Pakistan was forced to overlook this while they focused on the common goal of a Taliban victory, which would supposedly protect Pakistan from any hostile power using Kabul’s ability to stir up Pashtun and Baloch people against Islamabad.

What this tells us is that the Haqqanis have always made their decisions based on the strategic needs of their evolving situation. As insurgents fighting the Afghan communist and Soviets – and later the Americans and their Afghan clients – the Haqqanis prioritised long-term relationships that would provide reliable support through the war’s many twists and turns. The ideological force that kept these pipelines open was a shared belief in religious solidarity, especially at a time of war. But now, as they switch from war to governance, the Haqqanis need productive and stable international partnerships that global militant groups cannot provide. And the need to speak for all Afghans means that their ideological perspective is increasingly a blend of nationalism and religion.

But it isn’t just the West and India that misread the Haqqanis. Pakistan's four decades of effort have now culminated in a truly pyrrhic victory. Even though the Haqqanis and the Taliban quietly sacrificed Al Qaeda, they have renewed their commitment to the TTP, releasing thousands from captivity after taking power. To add insult to injury, the Taliban has pressured Pakistan to make constitutional concessions to the TTP while hosting talks between the parties in Kabul.

Afghanistan under the Taliban appears determined to use every available card to equalise the balance of power with Pakistan, even to the extent that it is now publicly speaking of the possibility of training its forces in India. Now, Pakistan is fortifying its border and preparing for the traditional confrontational relationship between Islamabad and Kabul, almost as if the two-generation-long alliance with the Haqqanis and others never happened.

We cannot know what lies ahead – that much is clear from recent history. But what is equally clear is that the US at least gets the present right by recognising that the Haqqanis and the Taliban cannot be reduced to stereotypes or puppets. Instead, the entire international community must engage in the same kind of canny and constant re-evaluation at which the Haqqanis have proved so adept.

Published: September 29, 2022, 4:00 AM