Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

A Mafia in FATA: Haqqanis and Drones


It took author Gretchen Peters two years working with a team of researchers to compile a detailed report on the Haqqani network.  Published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, it is a comprehensive study of the Haqqani’s business interests in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf, defining them as much as a criminal mafia as an Afghan militant group. It took me an hour to read it through. Yet when I tweeted a link to the report with the suggestion those with strong views on drones should read it – the Haqqanis’ base in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been the primary target of U.S. drone strikes – the answers came within minutes. “I assume u probably never met a minor or a woman who lost the head of the family in drone attack as ‘colateral dmg,” said the first response.

It is symptomatic of the debate on drones that it is so often reduced to this; the civilian casualty becomes a cipher for opposition to U.S. drone strikes, discussed in isolation from the men the missiles were intended to hit. In Pakistan, outrage is selective; someone killed by a U.S. drone strike is ascribed more value than someone killed by militants or by the Pakistan army, as though human life can be valued not according to the identity of the person who died, but by who pulled the trigger. The debate in the west is not much better; much of it is about what the ethics of drone strikes mean for the United States with little reference to people on the ground; the greatest anxiety is reserved for the use of drones against U.S. citizens abroad.

The report on the Haqqani network provides an opportunity to escape the narrowness of the drones debate – which has become repetitive, polarising and politicised – and reframe it in terms of what to do about an organisation which is seen by Washington as the most dangerous group operating in Afghanistan, and which also exercises a powerful and corrosive influence within Pakistan. The report does not set out to assess drone strikes. Its details, like everything else about Pakistan, will be contested and different conclusions drawn from the same material. But it does raise serious questions about the arguments made by those who say – and this now includes the Pakistani government – that ending drone strikes will improve the situation.

For a start, the report offers a powerful counter-argument to the conventional anti-drones narrative that these encourage militancy in the tribal areas and that if only they were halted and peace talks held, a political solution might be found. It describes the Haqqanis as “war profiteers” who have a strong financial interest in the continuation of conflict, since this creates the conditions which allow them to run criminal activities from extortion to kidnapping to drug trafficking to money laundering, alongside legal activities in business sectors, including import-export, transport, real estate and construction in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf and beyond.