Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Scepticism as US Blacklists Afghan Insurgent Group

Pakistan’s secret service, not its proxies, is the real problem, Afghan experts say.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

Experts in Afghanistan say the United States decision to include the militant Haqqani network on the list of designated “foreign terrorist organisations” will have little effect on reducing insurgent attacks launched from neighbouring Pakistan. 

The State Department’s announcement followed a year of efforts to get the group blacklisted, and was welcomed by the US Department of Defence. It was also hailed by Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s office, which said it had long been calling for such a move.

Karzai’s spokesman Emal Faizi described it as an “important positive step in the war on terror”.

“In the service of foreign intelligence organisations, the Haqqani network has not only conducted terrorist attacks on our security institutions in order to weaken our national army, it has also carried out suicide attacks in mosques, bazaars and other public places,” Faizi said. “I wish the decision had been made earlier.”

The insurgent group has a long history. Its founder Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani led mujahidin force during the western-backed war against the Soviets in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he aligned himself with the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

In the anti-western insurgency since 2001, the Haqqani group has played an increasingly important role, allied with but distinct from the Taleban.

The group operates out of the North Waziristan region of northwest Pakistan, just over the border from Paktia, Khost and Paktika, the Afghan provinces where the group operated in the 1980s. The elder Haqqani seems to have taken a back seat and handed over command to his son Sirajuddin.

The network has gained notoriety for its ability to mount complicated, daring and devastating attacks in urban areas.

A year ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing that the Haqqani force “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency” or ISI. He said there was evidence that the insurgent group, “with ISI support”, mounted an attack earlier in September 2011 attack on the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul that lasted several hours and left some 24 dead, as well as a truck bomb attack two days earlier which killed four Afghans and injured 77 American soldiers in Wardak province. He also said the Haqqani group was believed to be behind a June 2011 assault on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel and a number of other operations.

Reuters news agency quoted a Haqqani representative as saying Washington was being dishonest since it talked about seeking a peace deal in Afghanistan but still imposed blacklists.

A spokesman for the Taleban itself, Zabihullah Mojahed, also condemned the announcement, and insisted that the Haqqani network was an integral part of the movement and its commanders all followed orders from Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Afghan political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria praised the US decision both as a way of weakening the insurgency and a move to curb Pakistani interference in Afghanistan.

“The Haqqani network exists as a terrorist network in military, economic and political terms – that one cannot deny,” he said. “First the Americans weakened the Taleban in Kandahar, then they weakened its Quetta council. Now it’s the Haqqani network’s turn.”

Oria said taking action against the Haqqani group amounted to “sanction” against its sponsor, the ISI.

“Once sanctions are imposed on the Haqqani network, Pakistan will be placed under further pressure. It will be further weakened, and this will have a negative impact on the Taleban,” he said. “We will see greater tension between Pakistan and the US, and that is to the Afghans’ advantage.”

Another analyst, Wahid Mozhda, took an opposing view a political analyst, arguing that the US administration was depicting the Haqqani network as the bogeyman so as to justify negotiations with “good” elements of the Taleban, its enemy of the last ten years.

He added, “When the Americans were negotiating with Sirajuddin Haqqani last year with Pakistani mediation, he bluntly told the Americans to talk to Mullah Mohammad Omar because he was their leader as that they were part of the Taleban.”

Mozhda doubted the announcement would serve as a deterrent.

“It will further motivate the United States’ enemies to assist and support the Haqqanis and the Taleban,” he said. “Pakistan is aware that the US no longer packs the punch it used to. At one time Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf was prepared to do anything after one phone call from Vice-President Dick Cheney, but now it’s closed the transit route used by the US and NATO, and issues warnings to the United States. The ISI ignores action taken by the CIA.”

Nurulhaq Olumi, a former member of parliament and one-time general, agrees that blacklisting individual groups will have no effect on the ground when the real threat ultimately comes from the ISI.

“We won’t see any change to the military, economic or political position of the armed opposition unless the ISI is blacklisted by the USA and the international community” he said.

Olumi suggested the announcement might have been timed to boost President Barack Obama’s bid for reelection.

“He killed Osama [Bin Laden], brought the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami to the negotiating table, and will eliminate some of the smaller groups that are fighting. So he appears to have achieved a lot in Afghanistan, and people should vote for him,” Olumi said. “The reality in Afghanistan is quite different.”

On the streets of Kabul, people interviewed by IWPR were sceptical about Washington’s intentions, as they doubted it was serious about taking on Pakistan.

“The Pakistani ISI has fought against the US in Afghanistan for the past ten years, but the US is unaware of this,” said Kabul University student Sayed Nayim, reflecting views expressed by others. “Since Pakistan succeeding in forcing the US to apologise for killing its soldiers, I am sure it will also be able to make it apologise for blacklisting the Haqqani network.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Afghanistan.