At Large

Kings of the Mountains

An obscure little mountain clan is quickly becoming the most powerful anti-government force in Afghanistan.

By 11.11.11

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The rise to importance of the Haqqani is a story of over 35 years of struggle, first to grow from a minor Pashtun clan of the Zadran tribe to what it is today -- the most powerful anti-government grouping in Afghanistan. It would be simple to place this network into the overall structure of the Taliban, but that would be an injustice to the Haqqani. They are at once a part of the Taliban and at the same time separate from Mullah Omar's movement. This dichotomy has been explained by the philosophical motivation of the Haqqani that is focused primarily on ridding Afghanistan of foreign interference as opposed to the broader Islamic jihadi commitment of Omar's Taliban. One does not rule out the other, but simply has precedence.

The Haqqani network, as it is often called, is suggested to have originated from its collaboration with and support by American intelligence during the Soviet/Afghan conflict of the 1980s. Upon the vigorous urging of the U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, Washington did give financial and material aid to Jalaluddin Haqqani's fighting group, but that was after operatives of Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, paved the way. In fact, very little was done by the Americans with the mujahedin without initial ISI-related introduction and/or monitoring. If this activity is regarded from a Pakistani viewpoint, the Americans actually were ISI's rich uncle who was allowed to think he was running unilateral operations with Afghan fighters, including those associated with the Haqqani clan and their Zadran tribal cousins. This history remains a point of contention.

The ambition of Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani to be a part of the ruling group in Afghanistan actually began as a young man in his middle twenties when he was forced to flee Kabul for Miranshah in his home region of North Waziristan after reportedly being sought for arrest by President Daoud Khan's central government forces. During 1975-1978 Jalaluddin joined the group Hezb-I-Islami of the fundamentalist Mohammad Yunis Khalis.

During the 1980s Haqqani gained (or created) a reputation as a skilled fighter. It was at this time that he came to understand the value of the use of political propaganda that later has come to serve the Haqqani so well. By 1992 Jalaluddin acted as Justice minister in the new government in Kabul. By 1996 he was named Minister for Tribal (aka Border) Affairs by the Taliban government.

The idea that Jalaluddin was an obscure tribal personality as characterized by the Western press is quite false -- a fact well known by British and American intelligence and certainly Pakistan's ISI. Known also, though not well understood, is that the Haqqani family never was interested in becoming just one element of Mullah Omar's primarily Pashtun tribal confederacy known as the Taliban. Jalaluddin has held himself aloof from the Islamic jihadi theme of Omar's governmental objectives, though since early on he had a good relationship with bin Laden and al Qaeda. The Haqqani have drawn closer to the Taliban leadership recently, but that was a political move from strength rather than an acceptance of Mullah Omar's authority.

The head of the Haqqani clan is only in his early sixties, but is often referred to as "elderly" and even "sickly." In Afghan political terms this suggests he no longer exerts the power he once did. In fact he may have more power than before, though his personal, hands-on, direction may be less. His sons Khalifa Seraj (Serajuddin) and Badruddin apparently have assumed operational leadership, though the Haqqani organization utilizes regional command structures coordinated by several dozen clan members and longtime Zadran tribal followers of the Haqqani family. It was some of these extended family representatives with whom the United States was in contact before the attack on the American Embassy in Kabul. This limited liaison did not stop the attack. In a fit of pique afterwards, the American Secretary of State decided she should divulge this highly classified intelligence contact. Why?

There is some dispute as to which of the two senior Haqqani brothers has greater operational command. Michael Semple, recognized as one of the few authorities on Pashtun tribal alignments and a 20-year veteran of Afghan politics, wrote in Foreign Affairs in September that the eldest son, Sarajuddin, is the new "senior decision-maker" while Badruddin was "most closely involved in the embassy siege and seems to be more active and accessible." This analysis is consistent with the broader perception that the Haqqani extended family now has expanded to become a major insurgent movement on its own.

The key to the Haqqani dominance is their ability to attract external fighters and material support. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen was outraged to learn the ISI continued close contact with Jalaluddin and his sons, to say nothing of Pakistani Army operational relationship with Haqqani field units in the Pakistan tribal area of Waziristan. What else did he expect? This is South Asia after all. Afghanistan is part of Pakistan's neighborhood. Obviously Admiral Mullen had no idea of how the great game is played in this neighborhood.

As part of a dose of reality, it would be worthwhile for the Obama Administration to recognize that Jalaluddin Haqqani is aimed at ousting Hamid Karzai and eventually setting up a new government in Kabul, perhaps with a Haqqani at the top. The ISI knows this and is prepared to deal with that eventuality. The only question is whether the Haqqani complex of affiliated Pashtun of Waziristan wants to expose itself by assuming central political responsibility. The alternative is to become an essentially autonomous power controlling both North and South Waziristan and neighboring provinces while maintaining a separate and special relationship with Pakistan.

For reasons still best known to the sheikhs of the Gulf, the Haqqani in general, and Jalaluddin specifically, have a long-term relationship with the Saudis and the Emirates. Perhaps it's the mutual pragmatism; perhaps it's left over from the war with the Soviets. In any case, the Haqqani, obscure little clan of the Zadran tribe of North Waziristan, looks like the best bet at the moment as the dominant force in Afghan politics -- and war.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.