Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
The recent spate of spectacular attacks in Kabul reveals as much about the struggle for supremacy within the Af-Pak insurgency itself as it does about the war between the insurgents and NATO. In the span of a single week, Afghans witnessed, first, the closing down of the center of the capital during a 20-hour siege on the U.S. Embassy, and then, exactly a week later, this past Tuesday, a political assassination: a suicide bomber packed his turban full of explosives and killed the chief of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesmen claimed responsibility for the Rabbani killing on Tuesday, but the group firmly denied any involvement on Wednesday. Investigations into Rabbani's death now need to establish exactly who tasked the suicide bomber; if the Quetta-based Afghan Taliban in fact assassinated one of the group's main interlocutors, the movement cannot seriously expect to move forward as a key player in a political process. Another possible scenario exists: one in which regional spoilers who want to sustain the armed struggle are acting on their own. If the operation was run from the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan, as some are now suggesting, the Rabbani assassination may be an operation on which the Quetta-based Taliban leadership simply was not briefed.
Think back to the attack on the embassy in Kabul. Immediately following the siege, nearly everyone pointed at the so-called Haqqani network, since the tactics used mirrored those of their previous exploits, such as the June attack on the Hotel Intercontinental and the August assault on the British Council. Yesterday, even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said that the Pakistani intelligence services, or the ISI, were involved. But blaming the Haqqani network is like using a kind of militancy shorthand, as the much-used moniker fails to capture the complex nature of the politico-military organization that is expanding its scope, network, and political aspirations from a base in North Waziristan.
In fact, understanding militancy in Waziristan, especially if it served as the origin of the Rabbani assassination, is vital to charting a course for NATO's possible negotiations with the Taliban, and is unavoidable in any discussion of extricating NATO from South Asia.
Here are the basics. Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the leading Pashtun commanders of the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. From the Zadran tribe, he is one of the few major commanders who made his peace with the Taliban, serving its government in the 1990s as a border affairs minister. The sons of the now aging Jalaluddin front the organization. Although the eldest son, Khalifa Seraj, is meant to be the senior decision-maker, his younger brother, Badruddin, is probably the family member most closely involved in the embassy siege and seems to be more active and accessible. In part, the brothers draw upon fighters from the Zadran tribe in the border provinces who were loyal to Jalaluddin during the 1980s. But the Haqqanis' lethal effectiveness derives from the wide range of Pakistani tribal fighters at their disposal. In effect, they have an unlimited supply of men for small-arms ambushes and attacks on NATO posts and administrative centers.
What is new here, and key to understanding the attack on the embassy (and perhaps even the Rabbani assassination), is that over the last two years the Haqqanis have developed what amounts to a special forces capability. They have built up intelligence-gathering networks and infiltrated government institutions in Kabul and the surrounding provinces. With the help of al Qaeda and Central Asian fighters, foreign militants in Waziristan have developed advanced combat training and technology for roadside bombs. The Haqqanis draw on this expertise without actually controlling the groups who deliver it. Rather than the Haqqani Network, it would be more appropriate to call this the Waziristan Militant Complex.
Even if they outsource some of their special operations, the Haqqanis feverishly guard the one part of their operation they consider far too valuable to let out of their control: propaganda. Young fighters take combat video courses in the North Waziristan capital of Miran Shah and then accompany their comrades on attacks to collect footage. The Haqqani video editors then splice the bloody footage with B-roll snatched from satellite channels and YouTube. The result is a library of slick jihadi videos, glorifying the fighters and martyrs, stressing the precise and devastating nature of their attacks, and lampooning the Afghan government. Some even include credits claiming to be made by the "Cultural Committee of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." The Waziristan militants are projecting themselves as chiefs of the Islamic Emirate brand, which is important because they are trying to sideline, at least in the eyes of those watching, their Afghan jihadist counterparts.
Attacks such as the embassy siege speak volumes about the nature of the broader Af-Pak insurgency. The Haqqanis are boosting their political influence by taking center stage in the war. Granted, the Kandaharis in southern Afghanistan have launched their share of spectacular attacks -- such as the Sarposa prison break and the coordinated Fedayeen attacks in Kandahar City -- but in terms of impact on the public consciousness, the Haqqanis simply overshadow anything their counterparts in Kandahar have been able to pull off. Most significantly, there is no evidence that the Taliban's chief military commander, Qayyum Zakir, has anything to do with the planning and execution of this ongoing string of Waziristan-Kabul attacks. Traditionally, the Haqqani brothers have always been careful to stress that they are under the authority of Mullah Omar and the Taliban Movement. But the embassy assault suggests that that is changing.
For the moment, the war goes on, and, despite U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker's assertion that the embassy siege was "not a big deal," the fact is undeniable that Kabul remains as vulnerable as ever, as shown by the Rabbani assassination. Meanwhile, a more serious complication is coming into clear view. The Rabbani assassination notwithstanding, there is still a chance that the Taliban's Kandahari leadership in the south will, in the coming months, opt for a political process and negotiations. And despite their claims of allegiance, the Waziristan militants are positioning themselves as separate players in NATO's Afghanistan endgame.
If the Waziristan Militant Complex was, in fact, responsible for the Rabbani assassination, in an effort to spoil a possible political process, it is a starting pushback against the Kandahari Taliban leadership. Even within Waziristan there is a question of who runs each of the operations. Despite their origins as a marginalized border tribe, the Haqqani brothers may now be eyeing a future role on the Afghan national stage. The Haqqanis' backers in Pakistan will have to make their own decision about whether they are going to take part in a negotiated reconciliation, or if, as Washington has suggested, they will ramp up their proxy war inside Afghanistan.
The bottom line is that the militants in Waziristan depend on the jihad for their survival and thus have to oppose any settlement. After all, if there's no war in Afghanistan, they have no reason for being. But what does that mean for the future? At a minimum, NATO will have to deal with Waziristan separately from any deal made with the official Taliban leadership. As a corollary, in trying to make sense of Taliban intentions -- which is a difficult enough task in its own right -- it would be wise to regard the attacks coming out of Waziristan as a separate and distinct matter. Because as a negotiated settlement unfolds, the Waziristan Militant Complex will almost certainly be back again to sabotage it, with more spectacular attacks and the videos that always follow.