We need to talk about the Haqqanis

October 7, 2011

In a question and answer session last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about how the United States would balance its need to work with Pakistan while also putting it under pressure to end its alleged support for the Haqqani network.

Her answer, according to the State Department transcript, was to remind her audience that the United States had also played a role in creating the mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“Now, I also think it’s important to take a little historical review. If you go on YouTube, you can see Sirajuddin Haqqani with President Reagan at the White House, because during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the United States Government, through the CIA, funded jihadis, funded groups like the Haqqanis to cross the border or to, within Afghanistan, be part of the fight to drive the Soviets out and bring down the Soviet Union,” she says.

I have to assume she means Jalaluddin Haqqani, the elderly father who has since passed on much of the leadership of the Haqqani network to his son, Siraj. Yet here is the thing. I cannot find any evidence that Haqqani ever visited the White House. I have asked around among Afghanistan and Pakistan experts. I have skimmed through my copy of Charlie Wilson’s War.  I have asked on Twitter if anyone could show that Haqqani had ever visited the United States. 

And so far I have nothing.  I am not going to say definitively that Jalaluddin Haqqani never visited the United States – the little voice in my head that says people who live in glass houses should not throw stones stops me from doing that.  But my working assumption – until proved otherwise – is that Clinton was wrong.

So why does it matter? The United States and Saudi Arabia did fund the mujahideen in the 1980s and to some extent bear the responsibility for what is happening now.

It matters for three reasons. It matters because if we can’t get our historical facts right, policy decisions are being made based on very shaky foundations.  The nature of U.S.,  Saudi and Pakistani support for the jihad against the Soviets is still very much open to debate.

According to its defenders, the Pakistan army paid a very high price for fighting the Soviets on America’s behalf. Pakistan also had some three milliion Afghan refugees to deal with and when the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan it was left with thousands of armed Islamist militants without a cause and a raging Afghan civil war on its borders. Helping bring the Taliban to power in Kabul and turning the jihadis on Kashmir was a way of dealing with that problem.

Yet – and here is where history matters – how much was Pakistan a victim of the U.S. Cold War against the Soviet Union and how much did it turn it to its advantage?  It might have been possible during the jihad against the Soviets for Pakistan to support Afghan nationalist insurgents with U.S. and Saudi money – Pakistan controlled the way these funds were spent. The Pakistan army chose to stress Islamist militancy over Pashtun nationalist militancy in part because it has always  been afraid of Pashtun  nationalism on its side of the border. By stressing Islamist over nationalist/ethnic militancy, the  Pakistan army opted for what to a military mind was the best way to protect the integrity and unity of Pakistan.  (This was also obvious in some ways for an army which had lost East Pakistan to ethnic nationalism in the 1971 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh.) -

In many ways, that mindset continues. Work out how far the Pakistan army is dependent on instrumentalising Islam in its security posture and you are a long way to understanding how big the gap is between the United States and Pakistan. 

The contestable reading of history matters also for how it is portrayed nowadays.  The story about Haqqani being entertained at the  White House is an old one. Yet it was revived recently in the Pakistani media with a photo purporting to show that encounter – which appeared in fact to involve a different person. Commenting on the alleged White House meeting, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani said on Twitter that  the “fact remains neither Jalaluddin nor Sirajuddin Haqqani met Pres Reagan. Maulvi Khalis did.”

The photo underpinned a powerful narrative in Pakistan – that the United States rather than Pakistan is responsible for creating Islamist militancy. The United States is uncontestably responsible for many things – for the invasion of Iraq, for winning the Cold War to become the world’s sole superpower and for championing an untrammeled free market system that has contributed to the current global financial crisis. But how much did Washington with its money create Islamist militancy and how much was it a product of Pakistani security thinking?

If we don’t know the answers to that question, how are we supposed to judge whether the Haqqani network should be  included in peace talks in Afghanistan?

We know the idea of talking to the Haqqanis is on the table. The Pakistan army alluded to contacts between the Americans and the Haqqani network in a statement condemning allegations made by Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the Inter-Servitable.ces Intelligence (ISI) agency. In its response, the Pakistan army statement quoted army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as saying “Admiral Mullen knows fully well which all countries are in contact with the Haqqanis. Singling out Pakistan is neither fair nor productive.”

Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius said that “U.S. officials know the ISI also facilitated a secret meeting during the last several months between the United States and a representative of the Haqqani clan.” The aim was to find out whether the Haqqani network – or parts of it – were “reconcilable”.  “The message to the Haqqanis is that they can best protect political power in their ancestral homeland in Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces by coming to the table now,” he wrote.

Technically, the US administration’s conditions for bringing back Afghan militant groups into the political process do not in any case exclude the Haqqani network - requiring only as end-conditions of talks that they sever ties with al Qaeda, renounce violence and agree to respect the Afghan constitution.  And as Joshua Foust wrote at Registan.net, it is hard to find moral grounds for excluding the Haqqanis when some of the United States own allies in Afghanistan have if anything an even worse track record. Or as former CIA officer Robert Baer put it in Time, “when the U.S. finally leaves, don’t be surprised to see the Haqqanis in Kabul.”

Yet what do we know about the Haqqanis? Consider for a moment that one of the arguments that has been put forward in the past for talking to the Quetta shura Taliban – to whom the Haqqanis declare allegiance — is that they are stakeholders in the conflict – whether the United States and its allies likes this or not.  However unpopular they might be even among ordinary Afghans, they were once in power in Kabul and they have their own form of shadow governance in parts of Afghanistan. Does the Haqqani network – for so long based in Pakistan and with its alleged ties to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — still have enough of a constituency in Afghanistan to make them a valid player in a political settlement?

According to Michael Semple, who has spent years working on Afghanistan, it would be more appropriate to label the Haqqani network the “Waziristan Militant Complex”. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he  argues that “the Haqqanis’ lethal effectiveness derives from the wide range of Pakistani tribal fighters at their disposal.

“What is new here, and key to understanding the attack on the embassy (and perhaps even the Rabbani assassination), is that over the last two years the Haqqanis have developed what amounts to a special forces capability. They have built up intelligence-gathering networks and infiltrated government institutions in Kabul and the surrounding provinces. With the help of al Qaeda and Central Asian fighters, foreign militants in Waziristan have developed advanced combat training and technology for roadside bombs. The Haqqanis draw on this expertise without actually controlling the groups who deliver it. Rather than the Haqqani Network, it would be more appropriate to call this the Waziristan Militant Complex.”

In an article written last year, Tom Gregg argued that the United States should open talks with the Haqqanis while Jalaluddin was still well enough to contribute and still command respect within Afghanistan in peace talks.

“Sirajuddin, on the other hand, does not know the meaning of the word. He has been brought up in war, has never lived as a citizen of a functioning nation state, has little to no experience of government, is not a tribal elder and is not even a credible religious leader. In this regard he is motivated more by a radical Islamist ideology than his father, and less obviously constrained by a desire to maintain good relations with the local tribal leaders,” he wrote.

“Sirajuddin is in his early 30′s, grew up in Miram Shah, Pakistan and, prior to 2001, only occasionally traveled to his native village of Garde Serai, nestled in the rugged mountains of Paktia province. In Miram Shah he was involved in Islamic Studies but, unlike his father, did not graduate from a prestigious madrassah and is too young to have been a well-known fighter during the anti-Soviet jihad.”

Personally, I  find it very hard to judge whether the Haqqani network has a role to play in any Afghan settlement. I have heard very powerful arguments on both sides. And in any case it is not my job as a journalist to judge — but rather to keep collating and unearthing the evidence as I go along.

But one thing seems to me can be said with certainty. We should not be allowing a narrative to develop in which the Haqqanis appear to have an obvious role in an Afghan settlement – or at the very least a role which might help the west extract itself from Afghanistan – without knowing more about who they are.

And we should certainly not drift mindlessly into that narrative simply because, or especially because, the U.S. Secretary of State has, historically speaking, invited them into the White House.

(File photo of Presidents Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari)

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