The Taliban’s New Number 2 Is a ‘Mix of Tony Soprano and Che Guevara’

The Taliban’s New Number 2 Is a ‘Mix of Tony Soprano and Che Guevara’

The new head of the Taliban supports peace talks with Afghanistan’s fragile central government. Unfortunately for both Washington and Kabul, Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s deputy commands the country’s deadliest militia — and has given little indication that he would be prepared to order his men to lay down their weapons anytime soon.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, who will now serve as the Taliban’s second in command, runs the Haqqani network, an al Qaeda-linked group that U.S. military commanders describe as their most dangerous battlefield foe. The Haqqani network was the first to regularly use suicide bombings in Afghanistan and has carried out many of the bloodiest attacks of the long war there, including a high-profile 2009 bombing at a CIA outpost in eastern Afghanistan that killed seven American intelligence personnel and was one of the most lethal strikes against the spy agency in decades.

All told, U.S. officials believe the group is responsible for killing hundreds of American troops and thousands of Afghan soldiers. The State Department, which calls the Haqqani network “the most lethal insurgent group targeting coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan,” classifies Sirajuddin Haqqani as a “specially designated global terrorist.” It is offering up to a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or conviction.

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded all U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2010, said the Haqqanis were “a disciplined, focused group” driven as much by a desire to control a large swath of eastern Afghanistan as by religious or political ideology.

“To describe it as business-oriented probably sells them a bit short, but they were practical, focused, and ruthless,” McChrystal told Foreign Policy. “I felt they were, in many ways, the most serious threat to the ability of the government of Afghanistan to achieve stability in contested areas the Haqqanis operated in.”

The militia was established by Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin, a legendary tribal fighter who had received enormous amounts of money and weaponry from the CIA in the 1980s as part of the successful American-backed effort to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. The elder Haqqani had long been battling serious health issues, and there were unconfirmed reports Friday that he had died at least one year ago and had been buried in his native Afghanistan.

The younger Haqqani’s elevation within the Taliban poses a difficult strategic question for both Washington and Kabul: either continue to seek talks with the armed group in the hope that Haqqani will be sidelined in favor of militia leaders willing to discuss laying down their weapons, or continue — and perhaps even intensify — the ongoing effort to kill Taliban and Haqqani fighters and disrupt their supply lines from neighboring Pakistan.

The militant’s new prominence also offers an unsettling reminder that the next generation of Taliban leaders could be more violent and ruthless than the ones they’re replacing. Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose 2013 death was confirmed just this week, sheltered Osama bin Laden and launched a guerrilla war that continues to rage nearly 14 years after American troops first swept into the country. Sirajuddin Haqqani, nominally now in command of more fighters than ever before, could ensure that Afghanistan’s future is even bloodier than its recent past.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, described Sirajuddin Haqqani as a “mix of Tony Soprano and Che Guevara,” an ideologue who is willing to engage in criminal acts like drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom in order to raise money to fund his military operations.

“His criminality feeds his ideology, and his ideology feeds his criminality,” Haqqani, who is unrelated to the fighter, said in an interview. “He would say, ‘If we’re selling heroin, that will be used in the West? That will help destroy the enemy at home. And if we kidnap civilians? That helps buy weapons.’ He’s not like his father, who was a great Islamist warrior. He’s been running a criminal network as well.”

The Haqqanis hadn’t always been so devoted to killing Americans. In fact, the family and its fighters had for a time been among Washington’s closest allies in Afghanistan. In 1987, Rep. Charlie Wilson made his way to eastern Afghanistan and spent four days hunkered down with Jalaluddin Haqqani and his fighters. At one point, the elder Haqqani helped the American lawmaker — who would later be played by Tom Hanks in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War — fire rockets at a nearby Soviet base. The two men even posed for a picture together.

The elder Haqqani also enjoyed exceptionally close ties to the CIA, which shipped him both money and weaponry, including the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that would ultimately down enormous numbers of Soviet aircraft. When Haqqani was shot in the knee during a firefight, the CIA shipped him a portable X-ray machine that helped find the bullet. Milton Bearden, who was running the CIA’s covert program in Afghanistan at the time, later recalled that Haqqani refused to take medication during the subsequent operation because it was Ramadan and he wouldn’t break the fast. “Instead, he put a stick between his teeth and told his medic to go after the bullet with a knife,” Bearden wrote years after the incident.

The Haqqanis also forged close ties with Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which provided them with weapons, training, and money. The group also maintained safe havens within Pakistan that gave the fighters space to plan attacks and then cross over into neighboring Afghanistan to carry them out.

Some U.S., Pakistani, and Afghan officials believe that the family’s current campaign against U.S. and Afghan troops could have been avoided. In the fall of 2002, representatives of the elder Haqqani — including his brother, Ibrahim — met with CIA personnel in the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. The reason for the talks: a potential agreement that would have given Jalaluddin Haqqani a senior position in the government of newly appointed Afghan President Hamid Karzai in exchange for his fighters laying down their guns, according to a retired CIA official familiar with the matter.

The two sides couldn’t come to a deal, and any prospect of a peaceful agreement evaporated after U.S. troops arrested Ibrahim Haqqani and mounted an airstrike against a family compound that killed at least a dozen women and children. The Haqqanis have not engaged in substantive peace talks with Washington or Kabul since the two incidents, in part because American officials believe Sirajuddin Haqqani is simply uninterested in a deal.

The younger Haqqani has long been seen as far more of an ideological extremist than his father. He has forged close ties with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based terrorist group that carried out a deadly attack in Mumbai in 2008, and embraced both the use of suicide bombs and sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) powerful enough to destroy heavily armored American vehicles.

Sirajuddin Haqqani has shown little compunction about hitting civilian targets. Among the strikes linked to the group: a massive car bombing in July 2008 outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people, a June 2011 assault at Kabul’s best-known and most heavily fortified hotel that left 12 dead, and a suicide bombing at a volleyball match in eastern Afghanistan late last year than killed 57 people. The group also tried to kill Karzai.

The group’s IEDs and other bombs, meanwhile, have killed or maimed thousands of American and Afghan troops. The Taliban used crude pressure plates that exploded when a vehicle passed; the Haqqani network built more sophisticated ones that could be triggered remotely.

The United States, for its part, has tried — and failed — to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, including mounting a November 2013 drone strike that killed a handful of other senior Haqqani network commanders. Sirajuddin’s younger brother Nasiruddin was killed earlier that month in a drive-by shooting near Islamabad.

It’s not entirely clear what the younger Haqqani’s elevation to the top rungs of the Taliban hierarchy will mean that for the on-again, off-again peace talks between the armed group and the Afghan central government. U.S. officials see no signs that Sirajuddin Haqqani is open to a negotiated deal and believe he will keep fighting until all Western troops depart the country and the Taliban, or a group that shares his hard-line Islamist views, retakes control of Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Haqqani network for years has functioned as a de facto arm of the Pakistani intelligence services, and Islamabad could potentially use its long-standing ties with the younger Haqqani — and its influence over the group — to persuade them to come to the negotiating table. Unconfirmed press reports from the region said at least one Haqqani representative took part in a recent round of peace talks in Islamabad in mid-July.

Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador, isn’t optimistic.

“The only reason he would engage in peace talks would be because he was told to do so by the Pakistani intelligence services,” Haqqani said. “But most of his objectives can only be served by a state of permanent war. What could they offer him that would be enough to make him stop fighting?”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, July 31, 2015: The attack carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai took place in 2008; an earlier version of this article said the attack occurred in 2010. Correction, Aug. 3, 2015: The State Department is offering a reward of up to $10 million for Sirajuddin Haqqani’s capture or conviction; an earlier version mistakenly said it offered a reward of $7 million for his arrest or killing.