Last month Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief Northern Ireland negotiator, argued that "no group should be beyond talking to." In the context of the current crisis and a shift towards seeking a peace deal in Afghanistan, this is particularly salient. President Hamid Karzai has recently announced the creation of a commission to lead talks with the Taliban. There is also emerging consensus in Washington that stability in Afghanistan can only be achieved by reaching some sort of a political settlement with the Taliban. But not talking to particular insurgent groups will not be a good idea, and a reliance on a policy of "decapitating" them is even worse.
One group that should not "be beyond talking to" is the Haqqani network, named for its leader Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, and now considered one of the most feared insurgent groups in Afghanistan. The network is responsible for attacks against the Afghan government, the U.S. military, and the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Perhaps because of this central role in the Afghan insurgency, in July, Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke asserted that the Haqqanis are the Taliban network with the closest ties to al Qaeda and that dealing with them is ‘the most pressing task’ in combating the insurgency. Despite their alleged links to international terrorists, even Secretary Clinton has not ruled out supporting dialogue with them (with caveats). These comments suggest the door on the U.S. side may soon be slightly ajar. However, having spent the past six years talking with members of the network, including some of its senior members, it would appear that the Haqqani’s door is currently open for talks but may soon be firmly shut. The Haqqani network is in the midst of a generational power shift from father to son, which if completed will all but rule out any future talk of peace.
In June 2007, well before the Haqqani terrorist network had found its way into headlines in the western media, chatter spread through the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that the aging and ill Jalaluddin — insurgent leader, client of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), facilitator of Osama bin Laden’s 2001 escape into Pakistan — had passed away, reportedly due to hepatitis. The intelligence community picked up on this rumor but quickly disproved it. At the time of this report I was living in the tribal areas of southeast Afghanistan and wrote a report titled "Jalaluddin Haqqani: Dead, Alive, Does it Matter?" In short the answer is yes and no. Yes, because had he died at the time, it would have left the network more vulnerable than at anytime since its emergence in late 2004. And no, because today the Haqqanis have nearly completed what could be best described as ‘succession planning’ resulting in a powerful network that many believe jeopardizes Afghanistan’s stability
It is well known that for almost a decade he has suffered from health problems and requires regular medical attention rendering him relatively inactive in the day-to-day workings of the insurgency. Furthermore, as a senior insurgent commander (and former Taliban Minister), Maulavi Haqqani’s profile as a "most wanted" does not permit travel to the Afghan battle space. Consequently, his 36-year-old son Sirajuddin (aka "Khalifa") has increasingly taken over, with gusto, operational command of his father’s network.
However, these limitations speak nothing of the influence Maulavi Haqqani continues to enjoy as a tribal leader, religious scholar, ISI associate and close ally of Gulf Arab financiers. Indeed, the success of the Haqqani network rests with these social/religious/political connections that Maulavi Haqqani has carefully nurtured over the past 30-plus years; indeed, it was these very factors that also made him so popular with the CIA during the anti-Soviet jihad). It can be assumed that these networks, particularly with Arab financiers and the ISI, have been "inherited" by Sirajuddin. However, the same cannot be said about Maulavi Haqqani’s tribal, religious and mujahideen credentials. Sirajuddin is in his early 30’s, grew up in Miram Shah, Pakistan and, prior to 2001, only occasionally traveled to his native village of Garde Serai, nestled in the rugged mountains of Paktia province. In Miram Shah he was involved in Islamic Studies but, unlike his father, did not graduate from a prestigious madrassah and is too young to have been a well-known fighter during the anti-Soviet jihad.
Hence, the very elements that have contributed to the success of Maulavi Haqqani’s activities in eastern Afghanistan (and that could be used to assist in a peace process) — his personal influence as a tribal leader, mujahideen commander and religious elder — will be lost after he dies or passes control to Siraj.
Moreover, the respect of Maulavi Haqqani within Afghanistan as a mujahideen leader is matched by the respect he derives from being a prominent tribal and religious elder. As a result, it has been difficult for the various Zadran sub tribes of Paktia, Paktika and Khost to actively oppose his network’s activities in their respective tribal regions.
Indeed, today the Haqqani network is spreading its influence geographically into areas previously dominated by other insurgent groups (such as the Mansoor network in Zurmat district of Paktia). It has also, for the first time since the beginning of the Haqqani-led insurgency in late 2004-early 2005, recently embarked upon the systematic targeting and killing of moderate tribal leaders from within the Zadran tribe. This all looks like succession planning. Tactically, Sirajuddin must know that when his father dies (be it of natural causes or otherwise), the tribes would certainly be better positioned to oppose him, should they choose (and be empowered) to do so.
Added to this equation is the knowledge that U.S. pressure on Islamabad to tackle the Haqqani network could see their safe havens in North Waziristan come under increased pressure in the future. Maulavi Haqqani had the necessary contacts and influence to navigate his way through policy shifts in Islamabad. A question mark remains over whether Siraj, in the absence of his father, would be as adept at maneuvering between possible future policy shifts.
The time is ripe, therefore, for a dialogue to take place, one that will be easier to negotiate while the older generation of fighters that knows the benefits of peace is still alive. From my discussions with representatives of Maulavi Haqqani, he still claims to be fighting in Afghanistan for ‘peace.’ Sirajuddin, on the other hand, does not know the meaning of the word. He has been brought up in war, has never lived as a citizen of a functioning nation state, has little to no experience of government, is not a tribal elder and is not even a credible religious leader. In this regard he is motivated more by a radical Islamist ideology than his father, and less obviously constrained by a desire to maintain good relations with the local tribal leaders.
For example, on a visit to Afghanistan this year I met with a prominent Zadran tribesman who had returned from North Waziristan the previous week and had spent the night with Siraj. He had taken a message to the commander that the latter’s insurgent a
ctivities in the Zadran tribal area were having negative consequences for his fellow tribesman. Upon relaying this message, the elder was informed by Siraj that he was welcome to stay the night and receive his hospitality but that if he ever returned again with such a message he would not leave with his head on his shoulders. Such a blunt message to a respected Zadran tribal elder could not and would not have come from his father.
Despite appearances, my years of working closely with various tribal and religious leaders of the Zadran tribe has convinced me that there is a pro-peace middle majority that has hitherto been marginalized by the political process, the military intervention in the region and the insurgency. Sadly, some of the best of these leaders have already been targeted by the insurgents or have wrongfully been detained by the International Military Forces. Unless greater security and political space is afforded to the current Zadran tribal and religious leadership in Paktia, Paktika and Khost, the outcome of the Haqqani network’s succession planning will go ahead unchallenged.
In order to prevent this scenario from transpiring the United States must make a clear distinction between the current Haqqani network and al Qaeda. The Haqqani network is an Afghan network focused on Afghanistan. There is no evidence that the objective of the Haqqani network is to support an international jihadist agenda. To this end, Washington and Kabul should embark upon a policy of engagement (as part of a broader political outreach effort to all various elements of the Taliban) to separate the two. Locally, U.S. forces must pay greater attention to the local tribal dynamics as part of its counterinsurgency approach. In the southeast, this should include support to the tribal police (or arbakai) and ensuring that the pro-peace tribal majority is not subjected to intimidation, detention (or worse) by the international military presence.
However, should we fail to capitalize on this opportunity for dialogue, a more radical network, combined with the absence of the tribal and religious constraints that Maulavi Haqqani must regularly negotiate, will mark the beginning of a new, more violent generation of the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan. And this new insurgency will leave no prospects for dialogue or peace.
Tom Gregg is a Fellow and Senior Program Coordinator of the Afghanistan Regional Project at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation. Prior to joining CIC he served for four years with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as Special Assistant to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and as the Head of UNAMA’s Southeast Region.