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In the debate over how to plan for the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, a new argument has surfaced about who, exactly, American forces should be fighting. Last week on this site, the RAND scholar Seth Jones made a case that NATO's focus on the Haqqani network -- the criminal terrorist syndicate based in western Pakistan -- diverts attention from what he contends is a far more menacing and long-term threat, the Quetta Shura, as the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is known.
But Jones' analysis does not reflect the evolving nature of the insurgency. During a recent week-long tour of southern and eastern Afghanistan I took at the invitation of General John Allen, the senior American and NATO commander there, I saw first-hand how the enemy has changed in recent years. Since the summer of 2009, NATO's battle against the Quetta Shura in the south of Afghanistan has reduced the Taliban to a shell of its former self, a fact that alters Jones' estimation of the group's relative strength. The Haqqani network, by contrast, is on the rise, perhaps at its most capable and lethal level since its reconstitution in 2002. Although the Haqqanis are nominally part of the Quetta Shura, they are poised, with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services, to become the most significant long-term strategic threat to stability in Afghanistan.
Start with the waning Quetta Shura. Since the summer of 2009, U.S. Marines, with assistance from coalition and Afghan forces, have forced the Taliban from its stronghold in Helmand province by fighting, and beating, the Taliban on its own turf, which opened up the space for local, representative government to take root. Without its territory, the Quetta Shura lost access to its foremost revenue stream: the local narcotics trade. Successive defeats have taken a psychological toll, too; rank and file fighters are demoralized. As a result, there is tremendous discord between the senior leadership hiding out in Pakistan and the low- and mid-level commanders still in the fight. Pockets of resistance remain in the northern districts of Sangin and Kajaki, but after more than two years of NATO taking the battle directly to Helmand, the Taliban is on the verge of defeat.
The Taliban isn't faring much better in neighboring Kandahar province, the birthplace of the movement. Since the summer of 2010, U.S. and coalition forces have systematically destroyed the Taliban's sanctuary and local bases of support in and around Kandahar City, once the insurgency's crown jewel. In just over a year, NATO forces disrupted the Taliban's hold on the districts of Zhari, Panjwaii, and Arghandab. In many cases, NATO removed the Taliban completely. In fact, on my recent visit I walked freely through the village of Sangasar, the hometown of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Such a stroll would have been unthinkable just a year ago. Although insurgents have carried out a string of assaults in Kandahar City in recent months, such spectacular attacks are little more than an attempt to demonstrate their relevance in the wake of increasing losses in their former stronghold.
All the while, the Haqqani network has risen to new prominence on both sides of Afghanistan's eastern border. The group bases its operation out of Pakistan's North Waziristan, with what Washington believes to be the protection of the Pakistani security services. In Afghanistan, the Haqqanis reconstituted operations in their historical stronghold of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces in 2003 and 2004. From 2006 to 2008, they tapped historical relationships with former commanders that dated back to the 1980s and were able to expand into the provinces of Logar and Wardak, which surround the southern approaches to Kabul. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, they coordinated a massive suicide truck bombing in Wardak: 1,500 pounds of explosives injured 77 U.S. troops and killed five Afghan civilians. Since then, the Haqqanis have moved directly into the Afghan capital. In 2009 and 2010, they pulled off a spate of spectacular attacks in Kabul. In the past two months, they coordinated a suicide car bombing that killed 13 U.S. personnel travelling in a heavily armored vehicle, as well as a 20-hour attack on ISAF headquarters and the U.S. Embassy.
The Haqqanis show no signs of slowing down. To the contrary, today the family makes up the most respected, cohesive, and capable insurgent-terrorist organization in the region. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the network's aging founder, and his sons Sirajuddin Haqqani and Badruddin Haqqani, along with Jalaluddin's brothers Haji Khalil Ahmed and Ibrahim Omari, serve as the primary proxy forces in Afghanistan at the behest of elements of the Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testified recently to Congress that the Haqqanis act as a "veritable army of the ISI."
The Haqqanis have a wide and growing reach. They are extremely influential among the Pakistani Taliban, Uzbek fighters, Punjabis, and Kashmir-focused militant groups. They have strong ties with the Waziristan tribal leaders Commander Nazir (sometimes referred to as Maulvi Nazir) and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Internationally, the Haqqanis appear regularly in online jihadist forums; they give interviews and answer questions from admirers. The family runs fundraising operations in the Persian Gulf and distributes propaganda professing its battlefield exploits in Afghanistan. It is not the same network as it was just a few years ago -- today, the Haqqani propaganda machine, its geographical reach in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its reputation among the international jihadist community, and its relative power compared to the Quetta Shura have vastly expanded.
The Haqqanis' expansion into northern Afghanistan is particularly troubling. For years, they have been tapping extended ethnic and kin networks, folding local militants and tribes into their primarily Pashtun organization. This development is important since it lets the Haqqanis trade training and logistical support for access to terrain in the south, the east, and the north -- areas where the network has not historically operated. Northern Afghanistan, with its transportation links to Central Asia, is a prize for insurgents, as they seize the spoils of lucrative cross-border trade. But the Haqqanis have also cultivated a vital relationship with one group in particular, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Haqqanis provide sanctuary for IMU training camps in North Waziristan, facilitate the movement of IMU fighters from Pakistan to northern Afghanistan, and provide weapons and logistical support for IMU operations. In exchange, the IMU allows Haqqani leaders to operate in IMU territory in the north of Afghanistan. Some local leaders are now both Haqqani and IMU commanders, signifying close strategic and operational ties.
In fact, with the Haqqani network's momentum building and the Quetta Shura's power flagging, the former may even begin to co-opt the latter. Certainly, as long as Mullah Omar is alive, regional insurgent and terrorist organizations, including the Haqqani network, will continue to pay lip service to him as the "commander of the faithful." Omar is old, however, and rumored to be in poor health, and need to find a successor is becoming more serious. The Quetta Shura may have a few internal candidates up to the task, including former Guantánamo Bay detainee Abdul Qayyum Zakir and the Taliban's former minister of civil aviation and transportation, Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Each has his own disparate following, however, and it is not clear that either would be able to unify the Quetta Shura, let alone keep the Haqqanis under its umbrella. The Haqqani network stands poised to fill the gap by leveraging its jihadist credentials, the internal cohesion of its network, and its geographic spread.
In the months ahead, elements of the Pakistani security service will likely ramp up their support of the Haqqani network as relations between the U.S. and Pakistan continue to deteriorate. The Pakistanis know that the Haqqanis, more than Omar and the Quetta Shura, are the smart long-term bet. In exchange for protection and support in North Waziristan, the Haqqanis offer Pakistani security services a proxy to attack Indian and international targets inside Kabul and to stage continued spectacular attacks in the south and the east. Increased Pakistani support for the Haqqanis would mean expanded sanctuary for militants in Pakistan to escape American drone strikes. The Haqqanis could diversify routes into Afghanistan and ramp up the delivery of sophisticated Improvised Explosive Devices, the most deadly obstacle for ISAF and Afghan forces.
The Haqqanis are no longer a southeastern-focused Afghanistan insurgent group. They have become a regionally focused insurgent-terrorist organization that maintains ties with al Qaeda. The Haqqanis are the most powerful insurgent group in Afghanistan, and, should Omar die, they could seize the overall leadership of the insurgency from the Quetta Shura Taliban. Mistaking that fact will leave Afghanistan not to Afghans but to a terrorist network at the height of its powers.