The Taliban is mounting an increasingly deadly insurgency across Afghanistan, including a breakthrough into Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province, earlier this week. Regional experts and military officials assert that combatting the Haqqani network, one of the largest factions of the Afghan Taliban, is critical to thwarting Taliban advances that are further destabilizing the country.
“The Haqqanis operationally have been able to continue to conduct operations inside Afghanistan. They constitute the primary threat to Americans, to coalition members and to Afghans, especially in and around Kabul,” stated General John Nicholson, Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, during a press conference at the Pentagon last month.
For decades, the Haqqani network has maintained a presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The group was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani in the 1970s and emerged as one of the key mujahideen resistance units fighting against the Soviets during their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Throughout the Afghan-Soviet war, the Haqqani network established strong ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and even received U.S. weapons and Saudi funds that were funneled to mujahideen groups through the ISI. Today, the relationship between the Haqqani network and the ISI appears just as sound, if not stronger.
“To all intents and purposes, as Admiral Mike Mullen (former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), said memorably a few years ago, the Haqqani network operates as an extension of the Pakistani intelligence services,” says Bruce Riedel, Cipher Brief expert and Director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings Institution. “They receive safe havens and they receive sanctuary from the Pakistani intelligence services, and the Pakistani intelligence service often cooperates in the planning of operations with the Haqqani network, including planning of operations against American targets,” he continues.
During the 1990s, the Haqqani network merged with the Taliban, although it continued to maintain its own identity. Both groups espouse the reestablishment of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, similar to what the Taliban had attained before 2001. In addition to joining the Taliban, the Haqqani network also retains longstanding ties to al Qaeda, and while they may not necessarily share al Qaeda’s global ambitions, their unified support for the Taliban leadership poses a dangerous area for cooperation.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Haqqani network retreated to the tribal areas in Pakistan where it was able to establish a safe haven right across the border from Afghanistan. Over the course of the last 15 years, the Haqqani network has emerged as one of the deadliest groups opposing U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
More recently, many Taliban orchestrated attacks in or around Kabul have been attributed to the Haqqani network, including a deadly attack on a police convoy in June and the kidnapping of two university professors, one American and one Australian, near the American University of Afghanistan in early August. In fact, the current leader of the Haqqani network and son of the group’s founder, Sirajuddin Haqqani, serves as the deputy commander of the Taliban and plays an important role in the organization’s overall command structure and operations.
“Sirajuddin increasingly runs the day-to-day military operations for the Taliban, and we believe is likely involved in appointing shadow governors,” said Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, chief spokesman for United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, back in May.
The continued presence of the Haqqani network inside Pakistan has been one of the key sticking points in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Pakistan has proven reluctant to uproot the group from its bases of operation in the city of Peshawar or in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and it has failed to genuinely push the group toward partaking in negotiations with the Afghan government.
“Washington generally views the Haqqanis as the proxy group with which Pakistan enjoys the greatest influence and control, which helps to explain the particular frustration that U.S. policymakers feel at Haqqani attacks on U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces,” explains Daniel Markey, Cipher Brief expert and a leading scholar on Pakistan.
The lack of pressure applied by Pakistan against the Haqqani network enables the group to continue its string of attacks inside Afghanistan. “Pakistani safe havens for Afghan Taliban insurgent groups, including the Haqqanis, have sustained them as proxy forces despite years of U.S., NATO, and Afghan successes on the battlefield,” says Markey.
However, the Pakistani government persists that it has little clout with the Haqqani network. “Whereas U.S. officials have urged Pakistan to pressure the Haqqani leadership to the table—squeezing them militarily and financially—Pakistani officials suggest the limits of their influence and doubt the viability of the coercive American approach,” says Markey.
The U.S. has recently taken a more aggressive approach to combatting the Haqqani network and the Taliban, conducting a drone strike inside Pakistan that killed Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in May. According to Riedel, such a strategy may prove vital moving forward as it could “help to change the dynamic and take away the sense that there is a safe sanctuary inside Pakistan.”
But as has been the case for more than a decade, U.S. efforts to defeat the Haqqani network and the Taliban will only go as far as Pakistan will permit.
Bennett Seftel is the Deputy Director of Editorial at The Cipher Brief.