What is the Haqqani Network?

This piece first aired in July, 2009, as part of the show, “The Struggle at Home.”

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    HOST: This is War News Radio. When you think of attacks in Afghanistan, it’s usually the Taliban that comes to mind. But over the last year and a half, a different name has been popping up in connection to some of the biggest and most complicated attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group, has been linked to attacks that include the infamous bombing at Kabul’s Serena hotel, an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai, and an attack that killed 58 people at the Indian embassy in Kabul. The Haqqanis may also be involved in this week’s kidnapping of an American soldier in Paktika province. But who are these mysterious fighters? Where did they come from, and how do they fit into the wider picture of the war? Emily Hager has the details.

    EMILY HAGER: Like so many of the players on the Afghan stage today, Jalaluddin Haqqani came into his own during the fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He worked with the Americans, the Pakistani intelligence service, and commanders from his tribe to fight the Soviet occupation. He built his power base in Afghanistan’s southeastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost. But after the Soviets disappeared, when most Afghan warlords were fighting each other for the coveted government seat in Kabul, Haqqani stayed put – in his old, three-province stronghold.

    MATTHEW DUPEE: He basically governed it in a peaceful and fair manner. Unlike most of these other factions fighting for Kabul, Haqqani himself was never viewed as a warlord by the locals. He never abused, looted or robbed them.

    EMILY HAGER: That’s Matthew DuPee, a research associate at the Naval Postgraduate School. He says that Haqqani was powerful enough that the Taliban didn’t want to fight him.

    MATTHEW DUPEE: And by the time they reached the eastern fringes of the country in 1995, 1996, they basically franchised Haqqani into their movement. Because they knew he was entirely too powerful to take on militarily speaking. So he basically begrudgingly accepted their offer to a truce, and they offered him a ministry position, which he eventually took.

    EMILY HAGER: In the 1980s, Haqqani had traveled frequently to the Gulf Arab states, making connections and rounding up money for the fight. He speaks Arabic, and eventually he took an Arab wife. So when Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, it was in Haqqani’s home provinces that he built his first compounds. Haqqani is rumored to be the one who helped bin Laden escape the Americans in 2001. But after the invasion, he, like the other Taliban commanders, all but disappeared. Helena Malikyar is an independent consultant on Afghan politics.

    HELENA MALIKYAR: For a short while, all of these former Taliban and various groups and commanders – nobody heard anything from them. But then slowy around 2005, 2006, they started to reappear on the scene again, and started carrying out attacks and various activities.

    EMILY HAGER: Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons now lead one of the most powerful and sophisticated insurgent operations in Afghanistan: what’s called the Haqqani network. They came back on the scene in 2007, with a series of complex, destructive attacks. Helena Malikyar says Jalaluddin’s history is key to understanding his group’s power now.

    HELENA MALIKYAR: I think he banked on those relationships from the 1980s and early 1990s to reemerge as the leader of a group, and soon with the help of his sons, especially Sirajuddin Haqqani, who’s now the de facto leader of the group, they managed to gain prominence, and power, and gather a lot of people around them.

    EMILY HAGER: The influence of the Haqqani family is largely built on the ties the elder Haqqani, Jalaluddin, cultivated during his years fighting the Soviets. He built relationships everwhere: with Gulf Arab donors. With other Afghan commanders. And with members of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Now, Jalaluddin is believed to be in bad health, and his son Siraj is running things. But Jalaluddin Haqqani’s networking has paid off. Those relationships, built over a period of twenty years, allow Siraj and other Haqqani commanders to draw on money from the Gulf, Arab trainers and suicide bombers, and sophisticated weapons and explosives – most likely from current or former ISI officials.

    What makes the Haqqani network stand out, according to Matthew DuPee, is what they’ve done with these resources.

    MATTHEW DUPEE: They go for the biggest, most innovative attacks – thinking outside the box, unlike many of the other groups operating there. They set their sights very high. And even as we sit here in July 2009, they still represent the most significant threat to Afghan security and stability.

    EMILY HAGER: The Haqqanis are known for extremely complex attacks, including several that used 8 or more suicide bombers. Dupee points to the attack on the Khost airfield in August 2008 as an example of the Haqqani style. The attack, he says, started with a car bomb at the main entrance – a diversion that killed several Afghan security forces. Then 8 men in suicide vests started infiltrating the airfield from the northern edge.

    MATTHEW DUPEE: They were actually going to detonate themselves next to US attack helicopter, as an economic attack against the military, as well as a major propaganda coup if they’d been able to destroy grounded US helicopters. Fortunately the attackers were discovered before they breached the northern gate and they detonated themselves before they could get into the airfield. But that basically opened the doors for this method of attack, that uses this many suicide bombers.

    EMILY HAGER: Many of the suicide bombers employed in these attacks likely come from outside Afghanistan. The Haqqanis are believed to share training camps with Arab fighters as well. But unlike al-Qaeda and other international groups, the Haqqanis are focused solely on Afghanistan. They want to kick the US out of the country, and to depose the Karzai government. So they target American troops, Afghan security forces, and government officials in Afghanistan.

    The Haqqanis are not exactly part of the Taliban, though the lines are blurry. They do often coordinate attacks, even branching into the Taliban’s home base in the Afghan South. And like the Taliban, the Haqqanis are the target of American military efforts. The family has paid a price for their engagement, says Helena Malikyar.

    HELENA MALIKYAR: Haqqani’s young son was killed by an American – I believe it was a drone rocket attack on their home near the Haqqani madrasa – and his son who was killed during that attack is said to have been like, 17, 18 years old.

    EMILY HAGER: Like most of the other insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan, clear information about the Haqqani network is often subsumed by rumor. But what’s certain is that the network is strong, built up around family ties and the loyalty of tribal commanders to the elder Jalaluddin Haqqani. They’ve employed complex tactics to target political and military targets in Afghanistan, and they’re adept at juggling their relationships with other insurgent groups to coordinate devastating attacks.

    Whatever happens in eastern Afghanistan over the coming months, the Haqqani name is sure to pop up again. For War News Radio, I’m Emily Hager.