Courtesy Reuters

Why the Haqqani Network is The Wrong Target

To Save Afghanistan, Deal With the Taliban

The Haqqani network has become the bête noire of the United States in Afghanistan. This fall, it participated in a number of high-profile attacks on U.S. soldiers, the U.S. embassy, and NATO headquarters in Kabul. And on October 29, it was involved in a spectacular suicide attack against an armored military bus in Kabul that killed at least nine Americans. In response, U.S. officials have vowed to punish the organization, which is based in Pakistan's North Waziristan. Outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, bluntly noted in a September Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Haqqani network "has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency." And senior Pentagon and White House officials recently threatened to act unilaterally against the Haqqani network in Pakistan, including with drones, if Islamabad does not cut ties with the network.

Yet in focusing on the Haqqani network -- which enjoys little popular support in Afghanistan -- the United States is neglecting the more important (and difficult) task of dealing with the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. Indeed, it has done so for quite some time. The United States has pockmarked North and South Waziristan with drone strikes. These have severely weakened al Qaeda and taken out some Haqqani leaders. But the Taliban's inner shura, their most important decision-making body, has been left unmolested in Baluchistan.

If the United States wants to win the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and give the country some chance at a stable future, it will need to refocus. The ongoing insurgency stems from a complicated mix of factors. One of the most important is the insurgent groups' support base in neighboring Pakistan. In 90 insurgences I reviewed since World War II, groups with aid from outside states were vastly more likely to win than those with no state support: 50 percent as opposed to about 17 percent, respectively. A sanctuary in a neighboring country helped even more. Most every Afghan insurgent group enjoys financial and logistical help from elements of the Pakistan government, including from the ISI. And every major Afghan insurgent group -- the Haqqani network, the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and more -- has established its command-and-control headquarters on the Pakistan side of the border.

The United States seems to understand the need to address this problem in general, but it has focused on the wrong group: the Haqqanis. In some ways, it is no surprise that U.S. and NATO officials have taken a special interest in the network's activities. It has ties to al Qaeda and, more than most other groups, has brazenly thumbed its nose at the CIA by directly attacking U.S. intelligence interests. The Haqqani network also has an intricate web of allies and a base on the Pakistani side of the border in North Waziristan. It enjoys some popular support from the Mezi subtribe of the Pashtun Zadrans, has co-opted a range of nomadic Kuchi tribes in eastern Afghanistan, and has developed a close relationship with Ahmadzai subtribes across the border in Pakistan.

The Haqqani network is, of course, a dangerous organization. But at the end of the day, it is a second-tier group. Despite the popular support among some tribes, it is not well liked in Afghanistan and does not have a populist leader capable of taking control of the whole country. If Afghan President Hamid Karzai or one of his successors were to be overthrown, it is unlikely the Haqqanis would have played the major role.

In fact, there is only one entity apart from Karzai capable of generating national-level support: the Afghan Taliban. This group has some popular backing. When Afghans were asked to list the power centers they support in recent national polls, about ten percent listed the Taliban (compared to 70 percent who supported Karzai and almost none who supported the Haqqani network). The Taliban have established a series of shadow courts to impose justice in territory they control. In many areas, the unofficial courts appear to be more popular than the corrupt (or nonexistent) formal court system, but there has never been a conclusive study.

In addition, the Taliban have, by far, the largest number of foot soldiers. Their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is revered by most insurgent leaders, who refer to him as amir al-mu'minin ("commander of the faithful"). The group also runs the inner shura in Baluchistan. This body provides South Asian insurgents with strategic guidance, exercises some command and control over them, and is the areas largest fundraiser for militants. Besides Omar, the shura includes a coterie of seasoned leaders, such as Akhtar Muhammad Mansour (the Taliban's former minister of civil aviation and transportation), Abdul Qayyum Zakir (a former detainee at Guantánamo Bay), and Mullah Abdur Razzaq (the Taliban's former interior minister). The body also reserves one seat reserved for the Haqqani network.

Successive U.S. administrations have refused to target the Taliban haven in Baluchistan, primarily because doing so might upset Pakistan. But now Baluchistan is so safe for Taliban leaders that most have moved their families there and send their children to Pakistani schools. The Afghan insurgency is organized and run out of Baluchistan, and most significant Taliban meetings take place there. The Soviet Union allowed something similar to happen in the 1980s, when it failed to act against the seven major mujahideen groups headquartered in Pakistan. The result was disastrous; the Soviets could not win, because they did not degrade the insurgents' command-and-control nodes, supply lines, and morale.

There are several options to prevent this scenario from reoccurring. For one, the United States and NATO could work closely with Pakistan intelligence and other security agencies to arrest senior Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. The most effective way to do this would be to use small numbers of clandestine intelligence, police, and special operations forces to target leaders one by one. Large military deployments would be unnecessary and probably counterproductive. In return for Pakistan's cooperation, the United States could assist the country in putting down the Baluchi independence insurgency, a major thorn in Pakistan's side.

Similar U.S.-Pakistani operations were fairly successful after the 9/11 attacks. Together, the two countries captured scores of al Qaeda operatives -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, among others. The problem with this option, however, is that Islamabad is unlikely to help castrate the Taliban, its main proxy in Afghanistan, if it believes the United States is leaving the region soon and that India has the upper hand in Kabul. Former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf admitted that he cooperated with the United States after 9/11 because if he did not, Pakistan's "military forces would be destroyed." Most Pakistan officials now shrug off American statements that the United States will target the Taliban sanctuary as empty threats.

The United States could also opt to conduct unilateral strikes in Baluchistan. For example, it could deploy covert U.S. forces, fly drones from Afghan territory, or use local Pashtun forces. To minimize political damage with Pakistan, the United States could probably conduct only a handful of strikes on the most important targets. Even so, the United States and NATO would have to prepare themselves for some fallout with Pakistan, especially in the short term. Pakistan might shut down border crossings (such as Chaman and at the Khyber Pass) and allow militants to target NATO supply convoys in Pakistan. In addition, Pakistan might expel U.S. or NATO officials from Pakistan, as it has done in the past.

Some might argue that it would be counterproductive to target Taliban leaders in Baluchistan while negotiating with them in Kabul. But the recent Taliban assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who headed up Karzai's peace negotiations, indicates that some Taliban officials are already uninterested in suing for peace. What is more, in virtually every successful past peace settlement -- such as the one with anti-government forces in Mozambique and the one with left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador in 1992 -- governments have continued to target insurgents (and vice versa) during the negotiations.

The United States' final option is the status quo. This would mean continuing to fight the war in Afghanistan but refusing to target the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. Following this course, the Afghan government and NATO have made some progress undermining insurgent control of territory in Afghanistan. But this will likely be temporary with the U.S. military downsizing in Afghanistan, especially if the Taliban retains sanctuary and state support from Pakistan. And in the end, the status quo comes at an enormous cost. Insurgent groups that enjoy outside support and external hosting usually win. It is hard to foresee a Taliban defeat unless their command-and-control structure is severely disrupted in Pakistan.

Whatever option the United States selects, it should remember that the Haqqani network is not the main insurgent threat. The war in Afghanistan will not necessarily hinge on how well that network performs. Focusing operations on it might have some short-term benefits, but it is not a long-term solution. Instead, the ability of NATO and Afghan forces to win in Afghanistan will depend on their ability to degrade the Taliban. And that will hinge, at least in part, on their ability to undermine the Taliban sanctuary in Baluchistan. But that is something no U.S. government has yet been willing to take on.

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