By Fahd Humayun
Last November, the Pentagon announced that the United States now considered the Afghan Taliban an important partner in the Afghan-led reconciliation process, and as a confidence building measure, the U.S. military would no longer conduct counter-terrorism operations against Taliban militants. This revelation arguably constituted the most significant U.S. policy shift in Afghanistan since President Obama’s 2009 troop surge, with Washington cautiously acknowledging that the Taliban is integral to intra-Afghan reconciliation.
This offer of potential amnesty and invitation to participate in peace talks did not extend to the Haqqani Network, a consequential stakeholder in and component of the Afghan insurgency. The exclusion of the Haqqanis has proven to be a stumbling block for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as Kabul scrambles to rekindle the peace process and broker a ceasefire with the Taliban.
Despite a successful summer offensive, the Taliban in 2015 faced a number of internal setbacks, beginning with the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death in July. This chaos created the opportunity for Haqqani representatives to step in and provide much needed cohesion, operational support, and leadership on Afghanistan’s battlefields. The appointment of de facto Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy to Mullah Mansour, current head of the Taliban, also means that the Haqqanis now have a prominent seat at an important table.
While the Haqqanis constitute only one dimension of the Afghan insurgency, they wield significant influence over field mujahideen in Afghanistan. As a consequence of decisive Pakistani military action in North Waziristan since 2014, the operational influence of the Haqqani Network has shifted to the border provinces of Khost, Kunar, and Paktika, where the Haqqanis now run a trail of camps on the Afghan side of the border. These new power configurations mean that while the Network is integrated within the Afghan Taliban, it is not operationally subordinate. Last September, the Haqqanis claimed responsibility for a string of suicide bombings in Kabul, including one on the Kabul Police Academy that killed 25 people and left pro-peace lobbies in Afghanistan increasingly skeptical about the direction of President Ghani’s peace project. While Afghan Taliban unity has been damaged by internecine conflict, making them unreliable partners in peace talks, the Haqqani Network has remained singularly focused, pulling off attacks in and around Kabul.
Despite Washington’s public condemnation of the Haqqanis, Haqqani representatives participated in the Murree negotiations between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban in July. Representatives from the United States attended the meeting as observers, in spite of the presence of Sirajuddin Haqqani’s uncle Ibrahim Haqqani and brother-in-law Yahya Haqqani who attended as part of the Taliban delegation.
A significant problem for peacemakers is that the American approach to the Haqqani problem has grown increasingly opaque as the war in Afghanistan has gone south. Denouncing certain groups as terrorists and expecting them to support negotiations with the Taliban is not a smart approach to sustainable peace building. Sirajuddin Haqqani remains on an FBI “kill or capture” list, and carries a $10 million bounty, despite a 2010 face-to-face meeting with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai spent much of 2011 urging for peace talks with the Network. Last August, days after the Haqqanis came to Murree to speak to Afghan government representatives, the United States added Sirajuddin’s brother’s name to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, adding to the confusion surrounding the reconciliation process and the role the United States wants the Haqqanis to play. In an impromptu visit to Islamabad around the same time, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice did not hold back in asking for “tougher action” against the Haqqanis.
This vacillation has not helped the Pakistan-United States relationship either, where a lack of trust has led Washington to view Islamabad as undermining, rather than partnering in, what coalition operators and advisors have been trying to achieve in Afghanistan. But mistrust is a two-way street: almost two years after launching Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military’s ongoing fight against terrorist groups in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, there have been no major military campaigns to eliminate Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) safe havens on the Afghan side of the international border. Nor does there appear to be a desire in Kabul for a long-term border sanitation agreement to correspond with decisive Pakistani action in Waziristan. Instead, in August, the United States threatened to block the disbursement of the next tranche of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) if U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter felt that “sufficient action” had not been taken against the Haqqanis.
But categorizing the CSF as aid and tying it to arbitrary conditions only impedes Pakistan’s difficult and costly counterterror sweep. While the United States may base its skepticism on Pakistan’s checkered counter-terrorism history, events in the last year indicate that both countries have moved away from their longstanding positions on the Haqqanis.
For its part, Pakistan argues that it no longer views the Haqqanis as strategic assets and has begun incrementally distancing itself from Network leaders. In 2013, Naseeruddin Haqqani, the Network’s chief fundraiser and organizer, was murdered in Islamabad. Although the culprit remains unknown, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan publicly accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of arranging the assassination. It was the first indication that all was not well between the Haqqanis and Pakistani government agencies.
Territorial sanctuary in Pakistan is no longer being provided to the Haqqanis, who have been rooted out by the combined application of Zarb-e-Azb and the National Action Plan, the government’s policy-driven counterpart to the military operation. The Network’s operational infrastructure in North Waziristan, which includes IED factories and a communication network, has been effectively disrupted by counterterror operations. The Haqqanis have lost three key lieutenants — Badaruddin, Mohammad, and Ibrahim Haqqani — along with a host of family members to drone strikes in North Waziristan. In a meeting with the German Foreign Minister last year, Pakistan’s former National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz revealed that over half of the Haqqani Network had relocated out of Pakistan to Afghanistan since Operation Zarb-e-Azb began.
With operations pushing them out of Pakistan, the Haqqanis are finding new footholds in Afghanistan’s post-ISAF economy. Today the Network’s operational capabilities are fed largely on social-political connections with Gulf financiers and an elaborate empire of extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and drug trafficking. An Islamabad-imposed ban on the Haqqanis is unlikely to curtail or roll back Haqqani operations in the region, and a hard decapitation strategy against its leaders will only drive the Taliban further away from accepting President Ghani’s petition for a second round of the Murree process. Haranguing Pakistan to do more in the way of a ground offensive against the Network also drives up the costs of the Islamabad-Kabul relationship, and undercuts what U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have insisted is a priority for the United States: seeing through a reconciliation process that brings the war in Afghanistan to an end. While Pakistan’s commitment to eliminating terror groups is becoming steadily clearer, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cautioned in an October 2015 address at the United States Institute of Peace that it was unfair to expect Pakistan to target terrorist groups while bringing them to the negotiating table at the same time.
A third round of quadrilateral talks between Afghanistan, China, the United States, and Pakistan is now scheduled to take place in Islamabad in early February to discuss a peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Ahead of this fresh push for peace, the United States will have to be decidedly clearer about how it views reconciliation in Afghanistan and who it considers partners. This is critical if the combined international and Afghan aim is to win a lasting peace that extends to all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. If the Murree process gets thrown another lifeline, Washington may also have to re-think the UN-sponsored travel ban imposed on certain Haqqani leaders, which complicates the task of legally bringing them to any venue outside Afghanistan to negotiate. As Kabul and Washington attempt to sync their strategic objectives, the big question in 2016 looks to be whether talks about talks with the Haqqanis will figure into the agenda.