A new report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point is a must-read for anyone interested in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even international terrorism (OK, the report is a few weeks old, but I’m doubly slow during the summer). Don Rassler and Vahid Brown have basically changed the narrative on the Haqqani Network and its relationship with al Qaeda. They have done so by examining a huge amount of secondary and primary source data, including the first known review of a near-complete set of three jihadist magazines released by the network from 1989-1993. The authors have also reviewed thousands of pages of letters written to and from Haqqani commanders during the 1980s and 1990s. On top of that, they have also interviewed scholars, practitioners, and journalists with first-hand knowledge of the network. Given the amount of data, and the quality of the paper, I am surprised it only took them two years.
I don’t want to recite all the important findings in the report, since that would take up too much space and keep people from reading the entire thing, but some are worth mentioning just to give a quick summary. The main takeaway from the paper is that the Haqqani Network has had, and continues to hold, a much more substantial role in both regional and international terrorism than previously thought. While the Haqqanis have gone to great lengths to maintain the image of a group solely focused on local issues (a very conscious choice by the leadership, according to the authors), on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan it plays a key role supporting local and regional militant groups such as the Quetta Shura Taliban and international jihadist groups such as al Qaeda.
The Haqqani network maintains its nexus position by providing services or other items of value that suit the interests of its local, regional and global partners. The primary way that it does this is by functioning as a reliable and effective platform through which violence, driven by the specific interests of each actor, can be interjected into Afghanistan and/or launched abroad. This platform is of strategic value because it integrates military capabilities across networks to enhance effectiveness, while also creating a buffer between the Haqqani’s partners that masks the nature of each party’s inputs, thus minimizing their public association with operational incidents. The Haqqani network derives additional benefit from this position by leveraging its ties to this mix of actors to extract concessions or to improve its relative power.
The Haqqanis’ relationship with al Qaeda is also much more substantial than previously thought. The authors convincingly show that the Haqqani Network was “instrumental in the formation and operational maturation of al-Qa’ida and several other jihadi organizations over time” by tracing the relationship of the two organizations back to the Soviet jihad. Today, the two groups remain very close, according to Rassler and Brown:
At the global level, al-Qa’ida and other transnational terrorist actors — including the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) — also rely on and leverage the Haqqani network. The internationalization of the anti-Soviet jihad brought Jalaluddin and his close cohort into partnership with a wide-range of foreign war volunteers and local fighters. Jalaluddin’s facilities in Peshawar, Miranshah and Loya Paktia were key meeting places where this mix of actors — Afghan fighters, Arab volunteers and Pakistanis from various backgrounds — could get weapons and food, as well as prepare for attacks. Throughout the 1990s, the relationship between al-Qa’ida and the Haqqani network only deepened, with the latter providing space for al-Qa’ida and other militant groups to develop and to initiate a campaign of attacks against the West. Today, this context endures as the Haqqani network remains the primary local partner for al-Qa’ida, the IJU and other global militants.
There are some important policy implications of Rassler and Brown’s research. The Haqqani Network has long been seen as an undesirable actor in Afghanistan, but, perhaps believing the myth perpetuated by the group itself, policymakers seem to have underestimated the group’s capabilities or intentions. This new research shatters the illusion that the Haqqanis act merely on local aspirations. It also shows that the group cannot be coopted or pacified with concessions. Any meaningful response to this revelation would have to include an increased military focus on the group.
The United States has for the past few years run a fairly aggressive covert war against the Haqqani Network, but this effort has been hampered by the Pakistani military’s great reluctance to take on the group. As Rassler and Brown point out, and this is common knowledge by now, the army has used the Haqqani Network to keep the peace in the tribal areas and also exert pressure on India and the Kabul government in Afghanistan. For this reason, and perhaps out of fear the network has grown too powerful, the Pakistani brass is quite unwilling to clamp down in North Waziristian, where the group has its base of operation.
Rassler and Brown’s research should give US policymakers further ammunition when dealing with their Pakistani counterparts. There are few if any excuses left to defend Pakistan’s two-faced policy of supporting some groups (the Haqqanis, QST) while fighting others (Tehrik-i-Taliban)—especially since it is becoming painfully clear that these groups have become inexorably linked.
This new paper also shows that the real problem lies in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. By misinterpreting history and focusing too much on the wrong group (the Afghan Taliban), the United States has incurred significant opportunity costs. This is not to say that the Afghan Taliban has been wrongfully accused of its alleged deeds, but that a better understanding of the roots and enablers of international jihad could have prompted a more accurate policy—one which did not entail state-building on a massive scale.