In the first week of Taliban in Kabul office looked completely different than what they had promised. The women were whipped from the street, journalist and minorities were tortured, tried to end collaborations with United nations. Not only this they also banned women sports and women secondary education.
In other ways, the Taliban, and its new leadership, looks very different. The recent focus on the Taliban’s human rights violations and the group’s escalating battle with the Islamic State in Afghanistan risks overshadowing a potentially bigger story: the bloodstained rise of Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Haqqani Network. A loyal proxy of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the network has been active in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Through brutal tactics and battlefield successes, the Haqqani Network — a terrorist group allied with, and increasingly embedded in, the Taliban leadership structure — has now established itself as a dangerous and influential kingmaker in Kabul.
Throughout the course of the Afghan War, the Haqqani Network was often responsible for the deadliest and highest-profile terrorist attacks on U.S. forces. It may be no coincidence that Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, a terrorist with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, was appointed to serve as the head of security in the Afghan capital one week before an August 2021 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. soldiers and over 160 Afghan civilians. The fox was finally guarding the henhouse.
When the Taliban announced a new hardline government in September, several members of the Haqqani Network were given key ministerial positions, handing the terrorist group control of internal security in Afghanistan. It increasingly seems that the fall of Kabul was as much a victory for the Haqqani Network as it was for the traditional Taliban leadership. Indeed, within days of announcing the new government, senior Haqqani commanders engaged in a fistfight with a key Taliban leader, sending him fleeing from the capital to traditional Taliban strongholds in the south.
The ascendence of the Haqqanis has also been a victory for Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. As longtime Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin notes, today “Pakistan’s favored Taliban, the Haqqanis, dominate. Taliban leaders who sought to gain some independence from Pakistan or to seek a negotiated solution have been marginalized.”
A Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was already a nightmare scenario. The Haqqani Network, with its “track record of supporting overseas jihad,” is even more ideologically and operationally aligned with global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan than the Taliban is. The Biden administration recently warned that both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan are intent on conducting terrorist attacks on the United States, and the latter could generate that capability in as soon as six months.
With limited access to Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Biden administration should begin preparing for the worst — for the possibility that globally ambitious terrorist groups find either direct support or a more permissive environment to operate by an Afghan government heavily influenced by the Haqqani Network. It should lead international efforts to pressure the new Taliban-Haqqani government to abandon support for global terrorist groups, and it should seek to re-establish counter-terrorism capabilities in the country and broader region. Critically, it should do so while avoiding falling into a Faustian bargain with Pakistan, exchanging access to Afghanistan for acceptance of Pakistan’s support to the very same terrorist groups the United States is targeting.
The origins of the Haqqani Network date back to a 1973 coup in Afghanistan that brought to power Prime Minister Daoud Khan. When Khan offered “shelter, training, and weapons to Baloch insurgents and Pakistani Pashtun nationalists alike,” Pakistani intelligence began mobilizing exiled Afghan dissidents like Jalaluddin Haqqani for “anti-regime operations.” From their base in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in 1975, Haqqani’s fighters launched their first attack in Afghanistan, killing 12.
After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence re-activated various Afghan mujahideen proxies, with Haqqani and his allies receiving an “extraordinary share” of the arms and aid. Pakistan accepted arms and aid from the United States and Saudi Arabia for the anti-Soviet jihad, even as Pakistani intelligence “controlled their distribution and their transport to the war zone,” while limiting contact between the CIA and the mujahideen. Nevertheless, CIA officers, who observed that Jalaluddin “could kill Russians like you wouldn’t believe,” idolized him.
Jalaluddin’s tribal connections, fundraising skills, and fluency in Arabic were key assets in his ascension. Haqqani’s Zadran tribe straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border where Loya Paktia meets Waziristan. The border crossings under its control provided the network leverage over the flow of drugs, trade, and fighters coming across the porous border, with additional revenue earned from smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion.
Jalaluddin further distinguished himself by drawing Gulf money and Arab fighters to the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, even taking an Arab wife from the United Arab Emirates with which he had a son, Sirajuddin. According to Steve Coll, the “Haqqanis did more than any other commander network in Afghanistan to nurture and support Arab volunteer fighters, seeding al-Qaeda’s birth.” Indeed, al-Qaeda’s first training camp was established in Haqqani territory, though at the time Haqqani did not espouse a global jihadist ideology.
After the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan was consumed by civil war. In the chaos, a movement of ultra-conservative Pashtun religious students (“Talibs”) arose seemingly out of thin air, vowing to end corrupt warlordism and implement strict Islamic law in Afghanistan. After a string of battlefield victories, in late 1994, Pakistan “threw its support behind the emerging Taliban movement” led by Mullah Omar. Initially opposed to the group, in 1995, Jalaluddin “defected” to the Taliban while maintaining his own power base in Loya Paktia. The following year, the Taliban seized control of Kabul and effectively ended the Afghan civil war. Jalaluddin was later appointed Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in the Taliban government that ruled from 1996 to 2001.
After the 9/11 attack and U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, U.S.-allied forces cornered key Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, as well as Pakistani army officers and intelligence advisers, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As Pakistan arranged an airlift to ferry these groups to its tribal areas, the Haqqani Network reportedly “served as [a] key conduit for the escape of al-Qaeda operatives into Pakistan.”
The Rise of Siraj
From his sanctuary in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Jalaluddin “began to remobilize his front, and [by late 2002] Haqqani fighting groups were operating in Paktia and Khost” in eastern Afghanistan. In 2003, the Taliban formed new regional leadership councils or “shuras.” The quasi-autonomous “Miram Shah shura,” headquartered in North Waziristan, was “composed exclusively of the Haqqani Network.”
Meanwhile, Sirajuddin (“Siraj”) began assuming operational control of the Haqqani Network from his aging father. By mid-2005, he was “spearheading the insurgency in Loya Paktia,” eventually overseeing an expansion of the network’s operations and stretching a campaign of terror to the Afghan capital.
Inside Pakistan, Siraj was making the Haqqani Network increasingly indispensable to Pakistani intelligence. In the mid-2000s, militant groups in the Haqqani stronghold of North Waziristan began turning their guns inward, targeting the Pakistani state and civilians, eventually coalescing under the banner of a new Pakistani Taliban in 2007. Pakistani intelligence leaned on the Haqqani Network to broker a series of peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. Siraj used his connections to “pressure them to cease attacking [Pakistan’s] security forces — and attack Afghan and Western forces in Afghanistan instead.”
In 2007, the Haqqani Network became “officially affiliated” with the Taliban. Siraj was granted membership to the Taliban Leadership Council and was later appointed head of the Miram Shah Shura.
U.S. military officials began warning that the Haqqani Network were “becoming more violent and self-serving” under Siraj, who was part of a “younger, more aggressive generation” usurping power from traditional Zadran tribal elders. The Haqqani Network was the first among all Taliban factions to embrace suicide bombing tactics and is believed to have played a role in the July 2008 suicide bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed over 50 people, as well as the December 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA outpost in Khost.
In 2011, the Haqqani Network orchestrated a suicide bombing at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, wounded 77 U.S. soldiers in an attack on a U.S. military base, and assaulted the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The same year, Siraj published a violent manifesto advocating for global jihad outside Afghanistan’s borders, a departure from his father’s more traditional focus on eastern Afghanistan. It urged Muslims to travel to the West on student visas and attack soft targets, praising al-Qaeda and promoting suicide bombings and beheadings.
The Haqqani Network had by now positioned itself in the crosshairs of the United States, which began heavily targeting the group in Loya Paktia and, through drone strikes, in North Waziristan. However, Pakistani intelligence would reportedly “warn Siraj of an impending drone strike, after which he would seek shelter in the mountains surrounding Miram Shah,” limiting the United States’ ability to degrade the network’s capabilities in its Pakistani safe havens.
Frustrated U.S. officials began publicly and privately pressuring Islamabad to cut all ties with the network. In 2011, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen described the Haqqani Network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence. In 2012, the same year Siraj officially assumed control of the network from Jalaluddin, the U.S. State Department designated the group a terrorist organization.
Pakistan ostensibly “banned” the Haqqani Network in 2015. However, the following year Senator Bob Corker vented about how the group had simply moved from Pakistan’s tribal areas, where they were being targeted by U.S. drones, to Pakistan’s suburbs, where they were receiving protection and medical care.
Haqqani and the Taliban
When the Afghan government fell in August 2021, it should have been cause for a joint celebration by Taliban and Haqqani leaders. After all, Siraj had been named deputy emir of the Taliban in 2015 and, to the outside world, the Taliban and Haqqani Network appeared increasingly indistinguishable. Yet, within days of forming a new government, Haqqani and Taliban leaders were reportedly involved in a power-sharing struggle that descended into violence, sending a key Taliban leader fleeing the capital.
While the Haqqani Network is generally billed as an “autonomous but integral” part of the Taliban hierarchy, it has always maintained “distinct command and control, and lines of operations.” In 2010, U.S. assessments concluded Siraj “operates independently, choosing his own targets and only loosely coordinating with the Taliban’s supreme leadership.”
The Taliban is perhaps best seen as a conglomeration of roughly aligned Pashtun tribes of which the Haqqani Network is a part. However, the traditional Afghan Taliban leadership and the Haqqani Network are separated by geography and identity. Among others, legacy Taliban leaders like the late Mullah Omar, his son Mullah Yaqoob, and current Afghan deputy prime minister Mullah Baradar hail from the greater Kandahar region in southern Afghanistan. The Haqqani’s Zadran tribe lies to the more mountainous northeast.
According to Jeffrey Dressler, the Haqqani stronghold of Loya Paktia was “an area in which the southern Taliban were never able to gain influence because of a history of strong tribal independence and a fierce aversion to outsiders.” The Haqqani Network and the eastern Zadran tribes have historically resisted centralized authority, operating autonomously despite periods of intimate cooperation with the southern Taliban factions.
The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death in 2015 further propelled Siraj’s rise while exacerbating fissures between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban’s Kandahari leaders. Siraj was named deputy emir of the Taliban under Omar’s immediate successor, Mullah Mansour. When the latter was killed in a drone strike in 2016, a religious scholar, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was named the Taliban’s new emir. By one account, Akhundzada “intentionally split operational control of the Taliban’s military forces between [his two deputies] Haqqani and Yaqoob in order to prevent the two from creating potentially powerful breakaway factions.”
With Mullah Omar out of the picture, Siraj reportedly enjoyed final authority over the appointment of Taliban shadow governors while “Akhundzada’s relative lack of battlefield experience meant Sirajuddin had almost total autonomy over military strategy and operations.” By 2016, scholars observed that the “pre-eminence of Sirajuddin’s voice amongst the Taliban elite is palpable — so much so that certain critics have pointed to a ‘Haqqanization’ of the Taliban.”
When Kabul fell amid a chaotic U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, Haqqani leaders and Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar sparred over the allocation of ministerial posts and who deserved credit for the Taliban’s victory: Baradar’s political negotiations with the United States in Doha or the Haqqani Network’s brutal battlefield tactics. The dispute was serious enough that Pakistan’s intelligence chief flew to Kabul to oversee negotiations. (There is a rumor that the Taliban’s reclusive Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhunzada was killed in Pakistan in 2020, but that is unconfirmed. The Taliban, for its part, claimed he made a public appearance last month.)
Two Haqqani leaders were ultimately given ministerial positions in the new Taliban government: Khalil (refugees minister) and Siraj (interior minister). As head of the Interior Ministry, Siraj oversees internal security and the power to issue passports. He also secured the right to nominate governors for several eastern Afghan provinces.
Within days of forming the new government, Haqqani leaders and Baradar reportedly engaged in a fistfight, which sent Baradar and Mullah Yaqoob fleeing to Kandahar. Baradar later released what some said looked like a “hostage” video claiming the two sides had settled their differences. By October, he had returned to Kabul, apparently refusing a security detail from the Haqqani-led interior ministry.