THE HAQQANI NETWORK: THE NEW KINGMAKERS IN KABUL
In some ways, the Taliban that is now in power in Kabul looks a great deal like the Taliban that ruled Afghanistan in the run-up to 9/11. In their first weeks in office, the Taliban whipped women in public, tortured journalists, targeted minorities, executed former collaborators with the United States, and canceled female sports and secondary education.
In other ways, the Taliban, and its new leadership, looks very different. The recent focus on the Taliban’s human rights violations and the group’s escalating battle with the Islamic State in Afghanistan risks overshadowing a potentially bigger story: the bloodstained rise of Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Haqqani Network. A loyal proxy of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the network has been active in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Through brutal tactics and battlefield successes, the Haqqani Network — a terrorist group allied with, and increasingly embedded in, the Taliban leadership structure — has now established itself as a dangerous and influential kingmaker in Kabul.
Throughout the course of the Afghan War, the Haqqani Network was often responsible for the deadliest and highest-profile terrorist attacks on U.S. forces. It may be no coincidence that Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, a terrorist with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, was appointed to serve as the head of security in the Afghan capital one week before an August 2021 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. soldiers and over 160 Afghan civilians. The fox was finally guarding the henhouse.
When the Taliban announced a new hardline government in September, several members of the Haqqani Network were given key ministerial positions, handing the terrorist group control of internal security in Afghanistan. It increasingly seems that the fall of Kabul was as much a victory for the Haqqani Network as it was for the traditional Taliban leadership. Indeed, within days of announcing the new government, senior Haqqani commanders engaged in a fistfight with a key Taliban leader, sending him fleeing from the capital to traditional Taliban strongholds in the south.
The ascendence of the Haqqanis has also been a victory for Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. As longtime Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin notes, today “Pakistan’s favored Taliban, the Haqqanis, dominate. Taliban leaders who sought to gain some independence from Pakistan or to seek a negotiated solution have been marginalized.”
A Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was already a nightmare scenario. The Haqqani Network, with its “track record of supporting overseas jihad,” is even more ideologically and operationally aligned with global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan than the Taliban is. The Biden administration recently warned that both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan are intent on conducting terrorist attacks on the United States, and the latter could generate that capability in as soon as six months.
With limited access to Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Biden administration should begin preparing for the worst — for the possibility that globally ambitious terrorist groups find either direct support or a more permissive environment to operate by an Afghan government heavily influenced by the Haqqani Network. It should lead international efforts to pressure the new Taliban-Haqqani government to abandon support for global terrorist groups, and it should seek to re-establish counter-terrorism capabilities in the country and broader region. Critically, it should do so while avoiding falling into a Faustian bargain with Pakistan, exchanging access to Afghanistan for acceptance of Pakistan’s support to the very same terrorist groups the United States is targeting.
The origins of the Haqqani Network date back to a 1973 coup in Afghanistan that brought to power Prime Minister Daoud Khan. When Khan offered “shelter, training, and weapons to Baloch insurgents and Pakistani Pashtun nationalists alike,” Pakistani intelligence began mobilizing exiled Afghan dissidents like Jalaluddin Haqqani for “anti-regime operations.” From their base in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in 1975, Haqqani’s fighters launched their first attack in Afghanistan, killing 12.
After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence re-activated various Afghan mujahideen proxies, with Haqqani and his allies receiving an “extraordinary share” of the arms and aid. Pakistan accepted arms and aid from the United States and Saudi Arabia for the anti-Soviet jihad, even as Pakistani intelligence “controlled their distribution and their transport to the war zone,” while limiting contact between the CIA and the mujahideen. Nevertheless, CIA officers, who observed that Jalaluddin “could kill Russians like you wouldn’t believe,” idolized him.
Jalaluddin’s tribal connections, fundraising skills, and fluency in Arabic were key assets in his ascension. Haqqani’s Zadran tribe straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border where Loya Paktia meets Waziristan. The border crossings under its control provided the network leverage over the flow of drugs, trade, and fighters coming across the porous border, with additional revenue earned from smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion.
Jalaluddin further distinguished himself by drawing Gulf money and Arab fighters to the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, even taking an Arab wife from the United Arab Emirates with which he had a son, Sirajuddin. According to Steve Coll, the “Haqqanis did more than any other commander network in Afghanistan to nurture and support Arab volunteer fighters, seeding al-Qaeda’s birth.” Indeed, al-Qaeda’s first training camp was established in Haqqani territory, though at the time Haqqani did not espouse a global jihadist ideology.
After the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan was consumed by civil war. In the chaos, a movement of ultra-conservative Pashtun religious students (“Talibs”) arose seemingly out of thin air, vowing to end corrupt warlordism and implement strict Islamic law in Afghanistan. After a string of battlefield victories, in late 1994, Pakistan “threw its support behind the emerging Taliban movement” led by Mullah Omar. Initially opposed to the group, in 1995, Jalaluddin “defected” to the Taliban while maintaining his own power base in Loya Paktia. The following year, the Taliban seized control of Kabul and effectively ended the Afghan civil war. Jalaluddin was later appointed Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in the Taliban government that ruled from 1996 to 2001.
After the 9/11 attack and U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, U.S.-allied forces cornered key Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, as well as Pakistani army officers and intelligence advisers, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As Pakistan arranged an airlift to ferry these groups to its tribal areas, the Haqqani Network reportedly “served as [a] key conduit for the escape of al-Qaeda operatives into Pakistan.”
The Rise of Siraj
From his sanctuary in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Jalaluddin “began to remobilize his front, and [by late 2002] Haqqani fighting groups were operating in Paktia and Khost” in eastern Afghanistan. In 2003, the Taliban formed new regional leadership councils or “shuras.” The quasi-autonomous “Miram Shah shura,” headquartered in North Waziristan, was “composed exclusively of the Haqqani Network.”
Meanwhile, Sirajuddin (“Siraj”) began assuming operational control of the Haqqani Network from his aging father. By mid-2005, he was “spearheading the insurgency in Loya Paktia,” eventually overseeing an expansion of the network’s operations and stretching a campaign of terror to the Afghan capital.
Inside Pakistan, Siraj was making the Haqqani Network increasingly indispensable to Pakistani intelligence. In the mid-2000s, militant groups in the Haqqani stronghold of North Waziristan began turning their guns inward, targeting the Pakistani state and civilians, eventually coalescing under the banner of a new Pakistani Taliban in 2007. Pakistani intelligence leaned on the Haqqani Network to broker a series of peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. Siraj used his connections to “pressure them to cease attacking [Pakistan’s] security forces — and attack Afghan and Western forces in Afghanistan instead.”
In 2007, the Haqqani Network became “officially affiliated” with the Taliban. Siraj was granted membership to the Taliban Leadership Council and was later appointed head of the Miram Shah Shura.
U.S. military officials began warning that the Haqqani Network were “becoming more violent and self-serving” under Siraj, who was part of a “younger, more aggressive generation” usurping power from traditional Zadran tribal elders. The Haqqani Network was the first among all Taliban factions to embrace suicide bombing tactics and is believed to have played a role in the July 2008 suicide bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed over 50 people, as well as the December 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA outpost in Khost.
In 2011, the Haqqani Network orchestrated a suicide bombing at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, wounded 77 U.S. soldiers in an attack on a U.S. military base, and assaulted the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The same year, Siraj published a violent manifesto advocating for global jihad outside Afghanistan’s borders, a departure from his father’s more traditional focus on eastern Afghanistan. It urged Muslims to travel to the West on student visas and attack soft targets, praising al-Qaeda and promoting suicide bombings and beheadings.
The Haqqani Network had by now positioned itself in the crosshairs of the United States, which began heavily targeting the group in Loya Paktia and, through drone strikes, in North Waziristan. However, Pakistani intelligence would reportedly “warn Siraj of an impending drone strike, after which he would seek shelter in the mountains surrounding Miram Shah,” limiting the United States’ ability to degrade the network’s capabilities in its Pakistani safe havens.
Frustrated U.S. officials began publicly and privately pressuring Islamabad to cut all ties with the network. In 2011, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen described the Haqqani Network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence. In 2012, the same year Siraj officially assumed control of the network from Jalaluddin, the U.S. State Department designated the group a terrorist organization.
Pakistan ostensibly “banned” the Haqqani Network in 2015. However, the following year Senator Bob Corker vented about how the group had simply moved from Pakistan’s tribal areas, where they were being targeted by U.S. drones, to Pakistan’s suburbs, where they were receiving protection and medical care.
Haqqani and the Taliban
When the Afghan government fell in August 2021, it should have been cause for a joint celebration by Taliban and Haqqani leaders. After all, Siraj had been named deputy emir of the Taliban in 2015 and, to the outside world, the Taliban and Haqqani Network appeared increasingly indistinguishable. Yet, within days of forming a new government, Haqqani and Taliban leaders were reportedly involved in a power-sharing struggle that descended into violence, sending a key Taliban leader fleeing the capital.
While the Haqqani Network is generally billed as an “autonomous but integral” part of the Taliban hierarchy, it has always maintained “distinct command and control, and lines of operations.” In 2010, U.S. assessments concluded Siraj “operates independently, choosing his own targets and only loosely coordinating with the Taliban’s supreme leadership.”
The Taliban is perhaps best seen as a conglomeration of roughly aligned Pashtun tribes of which the Haqqani Network is a part. However, the traditional Afghan Taliban leadership and the Haqqani Network are separated by geography and identity. Among others, legacy Taliban leaders like the late Mullah Omar, his son Mullah Yaqoob, and current Afghan deputy prime minister Mullah Baradar hail from the greater Kandahar region in southern Afghanistan. The Haqqani’s Zadran tribe lies to the more mountainous northeast.
According to Jeffrey Dressler, the Haqqani stronghold of Loya Paktia was “an area in which the southern Taliban were never able to gain influence because of a history of strong tribal independence and a fierce aversion to outsiders.” The Haqqani Network and the eastern Zadran tribes have historically resisted centralized authority, operating autonomously despite periods of intimate cooperation with the southern Taliban factions.
The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death in 2015 further propelled Siraj’s rise while exacerbating fissures between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban’s Kandahari leaders. Siraj was named deputy emir of the Taliban under Omar’s immediate successor, Mullah Mansour. When the latter was killed in a drone strike in 2016, a religious scholar, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was named the Taliban’s new emir. By one account, Akhundzada “intentionally split operational control of the Taliban’s military forces between [his two deputies] Haqqani and Yaqoob in order to prevent the two from creating potentially powerful breakaway factions.”
With Mullah Omar out of the picture, Siraj reportedly enjoyed final authority over the appointment of Taliban shadow governors while “Akhundzada’s relative lack of battlefield experience meant Sirajuddin had almost total autonomy over military strategy and operations.” By 2016, scholars observed that the “pre-eminence of Sirajuddin’s voice amongst the Taliban elite is palpable — so much so that certain critics have pointed to a ‘Haqqanization’ of the Taliban.”
When Kabul fell amid a chaotic U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, Haqqani leaders and Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar sparred over the allocation of ministerial posts and who deserved credit for the Taliban’s victory: Baradar’s political negotiations with the United States in Doha or the Haqqani Network’s brutal battlefield tactics. The dispute was serious enough that Pakistan’s intelligence chief flew to Kabul to oversee negotiations. (There is a rumor that the Taliban’s reclusive Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhunzada was killed in Pakistan in 2020, but that is unconfirmed. The Taliban, for its part, claimed he made a public appearance last month.)
Two Haqqani leaders were ultimately given ministerial positions in the new Taliban government: Khalil (refugees minister) and Siraj (interior minister). As head of the Interior Ministry, Siraj oversees internal security and the power to issue passports. He also secured the right to nominate governors for several eastern Afghan provinces.
Within days of forming the new government, Haqqani leaders and Baradar reportedly engaged in a fistfight, which sent Baradar and Mullah Yaqoob fleeing to Kandahar. Baradar later released what some said looked like a “hostage” video claiming the two sides had settled their differences. By October, he had returned to Kabul, apparently refusing a security detail from the Haqqani-led interior ministry.
Pakistan and the Haqqani Network
In this internecine rivalry, Pakistani intelligence has predictably “backed the Haqqanis over Baradar.” The Haqqani Network’s relationship with the Pakistani state is older, deeper, and less contentious than the Taliban’s.
Siraj’s uncle, Khalil Haqqani, reportedly enjoys “recurring” meetings with Pakistan’s army chief and was “a regular visitor to Pakistan’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi.” By contrast, Pakistan arrested Baradar in 2010 for daring to explore early peace talks with the United States. “We picked up Baradar and others because they were trying to make a deal without us,” a Pakistani security official told the New York Times that year.
The Taliban’s relationship with Pakistani intelligence has been characterized by tactical cooperation and mutual dependency but also substantial mistrust. Strains of Pashtun nationalism within the Taliban’s ranks make Pakistan uncomfortable. As a result, Pakistani intelligence has sought to make itself indispensable to the group while populating it with more loyal operatives and factions, including the Haqqani Network. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, it categorically refused to recognize the Durand Line, the de facto Afghan-Pakistani border created by the British Raj in 1893 that divides the nearly 60 million Pashtuns in both countries. Mullah Omar is said to have grown irate with his Pakistani counterparts when the issue was raised. Since taking power last month, the Taliban has again withheld recognition of the Durand Line, complaining about Pakistan’s efforts to fence the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Notably, the Taliban has also rebuffed requests by Pakistan to pressure the Pakistani Taliban to cease attacks inside the country. “The issue of the [Pakistani Taliban] is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan,” a Taliban spokesman explained in August. Since the fall of Kabul, the Pakistani Taliban has launched an escalating campaign of terror inside Pakistan from its base in North Waziristan. Initial Pakistani government efforts to secure a truce with the group failed, but a tentative peace agreement was reportedly reached in mid-November. The Pakistani government claimed the Afghan Taliban helped serve as a mediator in the peace talks but a Taliban spokesman denied the claim: “we have not been involved in such talks, nor are we aware of it.” As in the past, Islamabad is likely leaning on the Haqqani Network to serve as an interlocutor with the Pakistani Taliban and other restive militant groups in its tribal areas.
The Haqqanis and the Islamic State in Afghanistan
The Haqqani Network’s relationship with the Islamic State in Afghanistan is a hotly debated topic. Abdul Sayed and Colin Clarke recently argued that, while there are connections between the groups at lower ranks, “there is scant evidence of a more robust relationship or anything resembling organizational support.” However, other analysts have found evidence of significant operational links among the terrorist groups.
The shadowy regional offshoot of the Islamic State has become a point of concern for the international community since emerging in the region in 2017 and claiming responsibility for the deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport this August. Initially comprised of disaffected former members of the Pakistani Taliban driven out of North Waziristan by a Pakistani military offensive, the Islamic State in Afghanistan first established a base in eastern Afghanistan. From there it engaged in an increasingly bloody turf war with the Taliban, fighting over territory and recruits.
After a series of battlefield defeats at the hands of the Taliban and U.S. forces from 2017 to 2020, the regional affiliate of the Islamic State began reinventing itself. In 2020, the group appointed a former “midlevel Haqqani commander” as its new leader. A 2020 U.N. report noted “most attacks claimed by [the Islamic State in Afghanistan] demonstrated some degree of ‘involvement, facilitation, or the provision of technical assistance’ by the Haqqani Network.” In May 2020, the Afghan government busted a “joint cell” of Haqqani Network and Islamic State fighters. Reports that year suggested Pakistani intelligence was pushing the Haqqani Network to establish closer links to the group in order to “maintain plausible deniability in future terror attacks.”
Scholar Theo Farrell contends “the Haqqanis have the deepest links with [the Islamic State] of any faction within the Taliban,” noting that the Haqqani Network “sent hundreds of fighters to support [its] struggle in Iraq and Syria. Many of these ‘foreign fighters’ returned home to join [the group].”
Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s turf war with the Taliban has intensified since the fall of Kabul. The former has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacksacross the country in recent weeks, including a funeral ceremony attended by senior Taliban figures and an attack on a Shi’ite mosque that killed over 70. According to a Lowy Institute report, these attacks
are meant to distinguish [the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s] brand from the Taliban’s, cast doubt on the Taliban’s ability to govern and provide security, and signal their own resolve to various audiences—all of which can ultimately increase terrorist organizations’ longevity and serve as a recruiting tool. [It] also uses these attacks to paint its long-time Taliban rival as illegitimate collaborators with the West, incapable of delivering security to the Afghan people.
The Haqqanis and Al-Qaeda
Finally, the Taliban and Haqqani Network both continue to maintain robust links to al-Qaeda. According to a 2021 U.N. report, the Haqqani Network “remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and Al-Qaida.”
Khalil Haqqani is “known to American intelligence as the Taliban emissary to Al Qaeda.” Stanford’s “Mapping Militant Organizations” explains that Khalil “has acted on behalf of Al Qaeda and facilitated its terrorist operations” and “organized the detention of enemy prisoners captured by [the Haqqani Network] and Al Qaeda.” Experts believe al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network are today “intertwined, and it is highly unlikely they will cut ties.”
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department concluded that, “as of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban … Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda.”
America’s counter-terrorism options in Afghanistan, like its access to the landlocked country, are limited. The Biden administration could opt to take a hands-off approach, maintaining a modest over-the-horizon strike capability. Perhaps it believes predictable governance challenges, internal infighting, and fear of U.S. retaliation will mitigate the risk that Afghanistan will again be a platform for terrorist attacks against America or its interests and allies abroad. Perhaps in their desire for international recognition and aid, more pragmatic Taliban leaders intend to uphold their pledge to prevent terrorists from using Afghan soil to launch such attacks.
However, it is far from clear the Taliban has either the intent or the ability to enforce their commitments. In any event, it is the Haqqani Network — not the Taliban’s Doha negotiators — that is increasingly pulling the strings in Kabul.
Under Jalaluddin, the Haqqani Network was historically unconcerned with global jihad, confining its operations to Afghanistan. But this is a different Haqqani Network under new management. One that pioneered suicide bombing in Afghanistan. One that sent several hundred fighters to the Middle East to support the Islamic State’s efforts in Iraq and Syria. One that published a global jihadist manifesto. One that has refined a “signature brand of urban terrorist attacks and cultivated a sophisticated international fund-raising network.” One that maintains operational ties to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, as well as to India-focused Pakistani militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. One that has developed a knack for hostage-taking in recent years, among them several American citizens. One that honors the families of notorious suicide bombers, doling out cash rewards and promising more attacks to come. One that just assumed key levers of power in a new government and whose ultimate intentions and capabilities are simply unclear at this point.
At the very least, the United States should prepare for the possibility that globally ambitious terrorist groups find either direct support or a more permissive environment in which to operate by an Afghan government heavily influenced by the Haqqani Network. “[The Islamic State in Afghanistan] and al Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations including against the U.S.,” Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl testified in October 2021. “We could see [the Islamic State in Afghanistan] generate that capability in somewhere between six to twelve months … al Qaeda would take a year or two.”
To enhance its counter-terrorism reach into Afghanistan the Biden administration is reportedly exploring options for basing and overflight arrangements with neighboring countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. However, domestic resistance and Russian opposition make these unlikely prospects.
The Biden administration thus confronts the same tragic dilemma that has haunted U.S. policy in Afghanistan for 20 years: Fighting terrorists in the landlocked country requires cooperation with one of its neighbors. Since cooperation with Iran, China, and Russia is impractical, the only alternative is Pakistan, the key patron of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network for decades. In late October, CNN reported the Biden administration was in negotiations with Pakistan to use the country’s airspace for counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan “in exchange for assistance with [Pakistan’s] own counter-terrorism efforts and help in managing the relationship with India.”
While the Biden administration is unlikely to alter America’s burgeoning strategic partnership with India, it might consider an extension of the same Faustian bargain from the Afghan War: provide aid to Pakistan and tacitly accept its “double game” in exchange for U.S. access to Afghanistan. Such an arrangement risks trading short-term relief for long-term pain. Acceptance of Pakistan’s double game is arguably what got the United States in this position in the first place.
Breaking the cycle won’t be easy. Pakistan has skillfully leveraged Afghanistan’s cruel geography to position itself as indispensable to the United States. But U.S. policymakers have consistently failed to appreciate that Pakistan has far more to lose from an openly adversarial relationship with the United States than vice versa.
Over the past 20 years, Pakistan has squandered the substantial goodwill it once enjoyed in Washington. The frustration on Capitol Hill is palpable. U.S. lawmakers recently introduced a bill in the Senate under which “the US president will have the power to impose sanctions on individuals who provide military, training or logistical support to the Taliban or provide safe haven to their fighters.” It would open the door to a range of targeted sanctions on Pakistani military and civilian officials. Others have called for Pakistan to be listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. also has substantial means to apply pressure via numerous international fora, including the Financial Action Task Force, an international terrorism financing watchdog.
Pakistan stonewalling the United States on counter-terrorism cooperation in Afghanistan would remove any remaining leverage and any remaining guardrails preventing the relationship from a vicious cycle of hostility and recriminations. By necessity, the Biden administration may seek a new aid-for-access arrangement with Islamabad, but the next chapter in Pakistani-U.S. relations can’t look like the last chapter. The foundations of any new pact should carry both carrots and sticks, including the specter of real, biting sanctions if Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies continues supporting the region’s most dangerous terrorist groups.
Jeff M. Smith is a research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.