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It’s Crazy to Trust the Haqqanis

A faction of the new Afghan government is extraordinarily close to al Qaeda and other terror groups—including the Islamic State.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A man watches a new documentary tracing the life of Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani network, a violent Taliban wing, on a monitor in Islamabad on Oct. 23, 2020.
A man watches a new documentary tracing the life of Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani network, a violent Taliban wing, on a monitor in Islamabad on Oct. 23, 2020. QAAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Yesterday’s explosions at Kabul’s crowded airport gate served as a grim reminder of the threats in Afghanistan that still confront Afghans, the region, and the United States. The Islamic State-Khorasan, an offshoot of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed more than 70 Afghans and at least 13 U.S. service personnel. 

But Islamic State-Khorasan isn’t the only jihadist group the United States needs to be worried about as it leaves Afghanistan. The Haqqani network is at the center of numerous militant networks and the new Taliban-dominated Afghan government. Although its leaders pretend to have had a change of heart as they assume national power, no one believes they intend to cut ties with terror groups.

Over the last two decades, the Haqqanis became a leading face of armed opposition to U.S. forces and carried out lethal attacks, including a 19-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy. They also became a transnational mafia trading in sectors from a ransom industry to real estate, telephones, car dealerships, mineral smuggling, and narcotics trafficking.

Yesterday’s explosions at Kabul’s crowded airport gate served as a grim reminder of the threats in Afghanistan that still confront Afghans, the region, and the United States. The Islamic State-Khorasan, an offshoot of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed more than 70 Afghans and at least 13 U.S. service personnel. 

But Islamic State-Khorasan isn’t the only jihadist group the United States needs to be worried about as it leaves Afghanistan. The Haqqani network is at the center of numerous militant networks and the new Taliban-dominated Afghan government. Although its leaders pretend to have had a change of heart as they assume national power, no one believes they intend to cut ties with terror groups.

Over the last two decades, the Haqqanis became a leading face of armed opposition to U.S. forces and carried out lethal attacks, including a 19-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy. They also became a transnational mafia trading in sectors from a ransom industry to real estate, telephones, car dealerships, mineral smuggling, and narcotics trafficking.

But what truly distinguishes the Haqqanis is their especially close relationship with al Qaeda. The Haqqanis’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, had a personal friendship with al Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden. According to a report by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted to the United Nations Security Council last May, the Haqqani network is a primary liaison actor in maintaining Taliban and al Qaeda relations. Al Qaeda played an active role helping the Haqqanis in the battles to conquer Afghanistan.

The network also remains linked to several regional jihadi organizations that include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, anti-India Jaish-e-Mohammed, as well as Islamic State-Khorasan. The U.N. report noted that Islamic State-Khorasan “lacked the capability to launch complex attacks in Kabul on its own” while taking responsibility for operations that had, in all likelihood, been carried out by the Haqqani network. Experts have long suggested the Haqqani network lets the Islamic State-Khorasan carry out attacks that serve its own purposes but does not want to be associated with it. The group allows the Haqqanis to maintain plausible deniability in such attacks. 

The brutal network has now been placed in charge of Kabul’s security by the Taliban. This week, Khalil Haqqani—a U.S.- and U.N.-designated terrorist—was sent to Kabul to take control of the city by his nephew Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy of the Taliban and chief of the Haqqani network. Habib Ur Rehman Agha, a local Taliban member and son of Taliban leader Syed Akbar Agha, was among those who met with Haqqani to discuss the security situation in the city. He said the Haqqanis have been given Kabul because of their long-established security presence in the city, running underground and in parallel to the official police and military. “They have had a security apparatus in Kabul for a long time,” Habib Ur Rehman Agha said. It is common knowledge that nothing happens in Kabul without the Haqqanis knowing. 

It isn’t yet clear if the Haqqanis played an active role in the airport attack, just ignored it, or were simply caught unaware. What’s clear is the explosions ripped through the airport perimeter that was supposedly under their watch. The Haqqani network had assigned its special unit, Badri 313, to patrol outside the airport and had been boasting online all week about its success to donors in the Persian Gulf as well as to future recruits. The group’s propaganda arm, called Manba al-Jihad or the Fountainhead of Jihad, posted fancy videos of Badri 313 dressed in modern army uniforms, balaclavas, and goggles, armed with state-of-the-art U.S. weaponry. They proved of little use when Islamic State-Khorasan militants detonated their suicide bombs—a practice the Haqqanis themselves pioneered in Afghanistan’s battlefield.

The Taliban claimed they lost 28 members, more men than the United States did. But although Islamic State-Khorasan is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, their relationship with the Haqqanis has been far more ambiguous. Whether the Haqqanis played a role in this attack or not, those who have been tracking the group find it untrustworthy and say it cannot be expected to honor the Taliban’s agreement with the United States from last year, which explicitly states the Taliban won’t allow anti-U.S. terrorist groups to operate on Afghan soil. 

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Haqqanis drive their strength from their relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. “They are likely trained by the Pakistani military,” Roggio said, adding Sirajuddin Haqqani is the strongest leader in the Taliban, arguably more than the overall Taliban leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada. “But Siraj has changed tune. He has told his people that they have conquered territory, and now they must govern, be just, have a sharia code, and meet the needs of the people. But will it govern effectively? We do know that it will keep its alliance with al Qaeda intact.” Roggio added that Badri 313 appears to be a reincarnation of Brigade 313 whose leader was Ilyas Kashmiri, an al Qaeda operative who carried out several anti-U.S. and anti-Indian attacks. 

Others said the Haqqanis are masters of deceit, implying it would be foolhardy for the United States to take them at their word. “Back in the day when a delegation of the central government visited them, the Haqqanis fed their guests a rich meal, Kabuli rice and whatnot. The delegates thought they had a deal and went to sleep. The Haqqanis slit their throats in the night,” said Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime, who wrote a detailed paper on the Haqqani network. “That is the kind of people they are; that is the kind of people they have always been. They will do what they want. They have always done what they want.”

That terrible story is just one from a long list of atrocities committed by the Haqqanis. Instilling terror in the hearts of Afghans to silence them into acquiescence has always been the Haqqanis’ modus operandi. They have shoved scalding rods through the legs of Afghans they suspected of snitching, beheaded others, and lined their corpses on the street to serve as an example to anyone who thinks of crossing them. It is that legacy of fear they are deploying in Kabul as they are tasked to maintain order. 

Most of the city’s residents are terrified and have locked themselves in. Some, however, see a few signs that the Haqqanis seemed to have improved their conduct. “Behave in a good way with the general public,” Sirajuddin had commanded his men as he prepared to retake Afghanistan. Richard Ponzio, director of the global governance, justice, and security program at the Stimson Center and a former state department official, said the Haqqani network was showing restraint toward Afghan citizens and has prevented looting and other basic criminal activities in the capital. “But at the same time, their repeated harassment—including sometimes of a violent nature—of Afghans seeking to flee the country via Kabul airport has led to an increase by Western forces of the perimeter of operations around the airport,” Ponzio said. “Once Western troops depart Kabul, there are justified fears among Afghans” that the Haqqani network will renege on public pledges made by Taliban spokespersons not to harm Afghan citizens. 

Peters said it would be especially interesting to see how the Haqqanis act toward fellow Afghans once they’ve firmly established their power in the country. Will they carry on with their illicit businesses and brutal killings or live off legally collected taxes? In an interview with Al Jazeera—a news network owned by the government of Qatar, which mediated between the Taliban and the United States—Khalil Haqqani tried to assuage fellow Afghans’ concerns. “We have no hostility with anyone. We are all Afghans,” he said. 

Either way, there are no assurances the Haqqanis will stop supporting their ideological kin intent on attacking other countries in the region and even the United States.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2021: A previous version of the article misstated which religious ideology al Qaeda stems from. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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