A classroom after a terror attack attributed to the Haqqani Network, Kabul, November 3, 2020
A classroom after a terror attack attributed to the Haqqani Network, Kabul, November 3, 2020
Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

In recent weeks, world leaders have pledged billions of dollars in aid to address the humanitarian emergency in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In addition to alleviating the suffering of the Afghan people, such assistance will serve crucial strategic goals, as a bulwark against cross-border destabilization, terrorism, drug trafficking, weapons proliferation, and large-scale displacement. Amid these efforts, however, another Afghan crisis has received comparatively little attention: the resurgence of international terrorism.

The source of this peril is the Haqqani network, the little-understood but most powerful faction of the Taliban government that maintains ties to al Qaeda and to some elements of the Islamic State Khorasan (also known as ISIS-K). Recent terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS-K, for example—including attacks against Kabul University, a maternity ward, and a girls’ school—have been linked to the Haqqanis. Moreover, the network has a seat at the table at the highest levels of the Taliban government. The group’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is head of the powerful Interior Ministry, with de facto control of the nation’s domestic security and intelligence operations, as well as of such civilian functions as control of passports and identity cards for Afghans seeking to travel abroad. And other members of the Haqqani clan hold key positions in the Taliban government, including the Ministries of Education, Refugees and Repatriation, and Agriculture, giving the group unrivaled influence in Afghanistan.

Yet until now, world leaders have failed to develop a coherent strategy to contain the Haqqani network. Partly this owes to the competing interests of surrounding states in the region, including Pakistan and Iran, which have historically seen the Haqqanis as a strategic asset. Meanwhile, rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia has seemed to preclude closer security cooperation in Afghanistan. At the same time, poor knowledge of the network’s multistate terrorist affiliations has led to an erroneous tendency to label the group as a domestic security problem rather than an international terrorist syndicate that has frequently targeted U.S. interests.

At a moment when new aid money may soon be reaching Afghanistan, this neglect is particularly dangerous. Without a coordinated plan to keep funds from flowing to the Haqqanis, any aid that is provided to the new Afghan government could risk strengthening terrorists and could lead to a dangerous new competition between the Taliban and ISIS. Only by addressing the Haqqani problem head-on will the United States and other major powers be able to prevent Afghanistan from becoming once again the world’s largest terrorist sanctuary.

From the Taliban to al Qaeda

Though they have maintained a far lower profile than al Qaeda and ISIS, the Haqqanis have proved remarkably resourceful and resilient. Founded in the early 1970s by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the syndicate began as a relatively small, tribal jihadist group based in Afghanistan and Pakistan but has used a series of strategic alliances to steadily accrue power and influence. The network now works with nearly every designated foreign terrorist organization operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, manpower that would cease to exist if not for Sirajuddin’s protection and patronage.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Haqqani network became a semiautonomous entity within the Afghan Taliban, and since 2015 Sirajuddin Haqqani has cultivated a position as deputy emir of the Taliban, designing and executing policy in strategic areas. As shown by Jeff Dressler, a former research analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, the Haqqani network has strengthened its decades-long infiltration campaign in northern areas that the Taliban struggled to capture in the mid-1990s by assassinating local power brokers it views as rivals and by fostering relationships with key foreign fighters.

At the same time, the Haqqanis have cultivated a long-standing relationship with al Qaeda. In the mid-1990s, the mujahideen fighter Yunus Khalis, who was a patron of the Haqqanis, served as a host and enabler to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. And beginning in 2008, the since deceased al Qaeda leader Abdul Rauf Zakir became a right-hand man to Sirajuddin Haqqani as they worked to increase both groups’ influence in northern Afghanistan. According to General John R. Allen, the former commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and the U.S. special envoy spearheading the fight against ISIS, few other jihadist groups “sending their rank and file to places like Syria have the close relations with al Qaeda, media savvy, military capability, and technical expertise for suicide attacks like the Haqqani network.”

There are haunting similarities with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

In addition to their astute alliances with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the Haqqanis have long received crucial backing from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. For years, the ISI has viewed a pro-New Delhi regime taking hold in Kabul as an existential threat and sought to use militant groups in Afghanistan to maintain what it refers to as “strategic depth”—a euphemism for a pro-Pakistan regime in the Afghan capital. In recent years, the ISI has come to view the network’s unique cohesion and reach as offering Pakistan a reliable agent to shape its long-term vision of a “post-NATO” Afghanistan. At the same time, the Haqqanis have also been able to rely on informal backing from other powers seeking to counterbalance the interests of the United States and its allies. At various times in the past, the network has gained tacit support from Gulf states, and more recently from China, Iran, and Russia, which in different ways viewed it as a proxy hedge against the U.S.- and Indian-backed Afghan government before the NATO withdrawal.

Nor are the Haqqanis’ ambitions limited to the Taliban-ruled state. If left unchecked, Sirajuddin will continue to protect his al Qaeda partners from Western countermeasures, whether military, economic, or political, as he seeks to build on his father’s legacy and establish Afghanistan as a beacon for international jihad. In a rare interview in 2010, Sirajuddin Haqqani made clear that he aspires to a caliphate that unites the Islamic world, as he lauded the victories and sacrifices of jihadist fighters in regions ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq to as far afield as Somalia and Algeria. According to Western officials, he has already begun to focus on Tajikistan, Kashmir, Syria, and Yemen.

By failing to consider these larger ambitions, the United States risks allowing the Haqqanis to create a new wave of regional instability and international terrorism.  In a recent interview, Lieutenant General Michael K. Nagata, who commanded U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East and South Asia from 2013 to 2015, described the Haqqanis as consistently underestimated. Referring to the group’s expanding, multiregional influence, he said, “there are haunting similarities in the risks that flow from America’s Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021” and the “failure of the United States to anticipate or recognize the gathering strength of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq after we withdrew in 2011.”

The ISIS Connection

The Haqqanis have directly targeted the United States and its allies on multiple occasions. In 2009, the network facilitated the al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban attack on the U.S. base in Khost Province that killed seven CIA operatives. In 2011, the network attacked the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul; and in 2013, it attacked the U.S. consulate in Herat Province, along the border of Iran. In recent years, the Haqqani network has held captive more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. These have included U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the New York Times reporter David Rohde, and the American Canadian Coleman-Boyle family. Sirajuddin is still holding at least one American captive, former U.S. Navy diver Mark Frerichs.

The Haqqanis’ record of hostage taking of Westerners—often in alliance with al Qaeda—has been particularly troubling. If history is any guide, the network will continue to use hostages for political leverage, seeking to force the United States to compromise, for example, on such issues as financial sanctions, travel restrictions, prisoner exchanges, and drone strikes. This prisoner-for-concession tactic strongly suggests that until Americans are repatriated, the Haqqani network will aim to confront the West with a no-win decision: either refrain from ordering lethal strikes or manned counterterrorist operations or continue current policies and risk American lives and additional political fallout at home.

Through 20 years of U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network has also proved remarkably adaptive. Instead of trying to construct parallel government institutions, as the Taliban did in southern Afghanistan, the Haqqanis increased their reach by infiltrating existing Western-backed military and political structures. Western intelligence officials say the network placed itself in an ideal position to seize money meant for legitimate institutions, avoid blacklists, confiscate Western security resources, and request the release of detainees. Using links to officials in the Afghan government, the group was often able to evade U.S. scrutiny even as it used local governance and development programs funded by Washington for its own destabilizing ends.

For Western officials, addressing the Haqqani issue has been made more complicated by pressure to deal with ISIS-K. Many officials and analysts view ISIS-K as a common enemy of both the United States and the Taliban—and, by extension, of the Haqqani network. And since ISIS-K is viewed as the primary international terrorist threat in Afghanistan, they argue that it is necessary to provide foreign aid to the new Taliban-controlled government to effectively counter ISIS-K.

This is deeply flawed logic. To understand the Haqqani network’s true relationship to ISIS-K requires moving beyond the notion of a simple divide between the groups. In Afghanistan, there are really two ISIS-Ks: Islamic State Khorasan and Islamic State Kabul. The former is affiliated with and directed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and is primarily composed of former Pakistani Taliban. The latter is a distinct entity, primarily composed of former al Qaeda members and led by Shahab al-Muhajir, an alumnus of the Haqqani network. 

Both ISIS-Ks are extremely dangerous, but until the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, Sirajuddin Haqqani and his confederates have made a show of opposing ISIS-Khorasan, while surreptitiously supporting the activities of ISIS-Kabul. As reported by the United Nations Security Council Monitoring Team, based on member states’ statements, ISIS-Khorasan has often “lacked the capability to launch complex attacks in Kabul on its own,” but it often claims responsibility for operations that were likely carried out by the Haqqanis. Such attacks belie the Taliban’s feigned moderation and point to the danger of sending select types of foreign assistance to Afghanistan that could end up in the control of the network.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Bringing together an international front against the Haqqanis will be a formidable task, but the United States and its direct allies are not the only players in the region that have reason to be concerned about the group. Despite vast differences with the United States on most issues, China and Russia have a shared interest in not having Afghanistan become a lawless sanctuary for international terrorism. In previous years, China tacitly endorsed Pakistan’s use of clandestine terrorist proxies in Afghanistan because it was happy to delegate the job of containing India to Pakistan. But Beijing is increasingly worried about the prospect of jihadist activity in the Xinjiang region, which sits close to Afghanistan.

For its part, although the Russian government has long viewed terrorist groups as proxies to help oust U.S. forces from the region, it has become wary of the potential for blowback, as exemplified by the terrorist attack carried out by al Qaeda in 2017 in St. Petersburg. Moscow also fears that insecurity in northern Afghanistan, strategic pockets of which have been under the influence of the Haqqanis and al Qaeda since at least 2008, could spread to its allies in central Asia. Iran, too, has good reasons to curtail its previous support for the Haqqanis. Tehran worries, not unreasonably, that an al Qaeda–backed Afghan government could trigger a refugee crisis, sending more waves of Afghans into Iran and empowering an extremist Sunni resurgence on its eastern border.

In recent years, the Haqqanis have held more U.S. hostages than any other terrorist group.

Bringing together these widely disparate regional and world powers against the Haqqanis, however, will require intensive diplomacy. Washington should appoint a senior envoy charged with holding the Taliban to their obligations under the 2020 peace deal with the United States and pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1267 (1999), to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a refuge for international terrorists. The Taliban’s political leadership could theoretically reform itself to gain international acceptance and aid, but it cannot or will not overrule Sirajuddin Haqqani where he has staked out an opposing view. As a crucial and achievable first step, the U.S. envoy should seek to convince China, Russia, and other regional powers to jointly insist that any new foreign aid to Afghanistan be contingent on the Haqqanis ensuring Afghanistan will not again export terrorism. Specifically, new multilateral sanctions must be designed to target the Haqqanis’ relationships with al Qaeda and ISIS-Kabul, and provisions must be put in place to ensure that the Taliban government commits to using aid solely to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

U.S. policymakers must also craft a new approach toward Pakistan. Until now, the United States has generally been reluctant to force Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqanis within its borders, out of concern over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. But that view may be changing. In a recent interview for this research, General Joseph F. Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the U.S. needs to take a more robust stand against Pakistan’s support for the terrorist syndicate. “We cannot allow our concerns for instability in a nuclear armed Pakistan to impede effective action against Haqqani,” General Dunford said.

To address the Haqqani problem, Washington would likely have to reveal publicly the extent to which officials at the highest levels of the Pakistan military and the ISI support terror organizations. Such moves against an ostensible ally would be unusual and would require advanced multilateral measures and innovative statecraft to protect intelligence sources and methods. But neither Washington’s nor Beijing’s practice of delegating its counterterrorism efforts to Islamabad has worked. Pakistan must account for its support of terrorists and face incentives to act more like an ally that would benefit from increased stability in South Asia and beyond.

This is a pivotal moment. If the United States is able to limit and contain the power of the Haqqanis in the new Taliban state, it would go a long way toward preventing Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism. When designed properly, such an approach could also buttress more moderate—non-Haqqani—factions of the Taliban constellation, which may include, for example, some of the leaders with whom Washington negotiated in 2020. But the United States will need international partners for any such strategy to be successful. Even in minimal form, a multilateral approach among the United States, Russia, China, and other nations toward the Haqqani threat in Afghanistan would do much to limit the expansion of ISIS-Khorasan and al Qaeda into the broader region and potentially stave off a devastating wave of destabilization from the new global terror threat.

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  • MELISSA SKORKA, a Senior Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre, served as a Senior Adviser to the former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford in the Haqqani Fusion Cell and the International Security Assistance Force from 2011 to 2014.
  • More By Melissa Skorka