The recent clamoring over Afghan insurgents' decision to engage in "talks" with the Afghan government has obscured some rather important distinctions between who is talking and what the prospects are for those talks. Two of Afghanistan's most prominent insurgent groups, the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani network are both said to be participating in these "talks." But the two groups are quite distinct, with different objectives, ideological sentiments and partnerships with radical Islamic terrorists. These distinctions make any possible deal with the Haqqanis a particularly dubious proposition.
While it is true that the Taliban and the Haqqani network share the common objective of forcing the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan and favor the return of a hardline Islamic government, that is about where their commonalities end. Perhaps the most important difference is their relationship with al-Qaeda. The Taliban has many ties to the terrorist group, but it is the Haqqanis that shelter al-Qaeda's de facto headquarters in North Waziristan.
The Haqqani network's operations are distinct from those of the Taliban in several key ways. Their command and control, support infrastructure, recruiting and funding mechanisms are all largely separate. They operate out of Pakistan's North Waziristan Agency, just miles away from Afghanistan's southeastern border. Unlike the Taliban, a national umbrella insurgent movement, the Haqqanis influence is mostly limited to the southeast of the country, the same area from which they fought the Soviet Army in the 1980s. Although the network is currently led by the sons of the infamous Mujahideen commander Jallaludin Haqqani, who distinguished himself as a particularly effective anti-Soviet Mujahideen commander known for his high body counts, they remain a potent force. (The elder Haqqani was once described as "goodness personified" by former Texas congressman Charlie Wilson,) The Haqqanis have been responsible for the majority of Kabul's most sophisticated suicide attacks as well as the December 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA base in southeastern Afghanistan, the deadliest attack suffered by the CIA since the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing.
Unlike the Taliban, the Haqqanis are neither interested in nor capable of governing the country as a whole. This disinterest in national governance, combined with the network's close association with al-Qaeda, makes a grand bargain with senior Haqqani leadership an unacceptable proposition. Any deal that met the Haqqanis' demands would likely require recognizing q Haqqani-dominated mini-state within Afghan borders, which could, once again, become a safe harbor for al-Qaeda and many other international terrorists. In other words, it could roll an entire region of Afghanistan right back to Sept. 10, 2001. Clearly, that is something the U.S. simply cannot tolerate.
The Haqqani's close relationship with al-Qaeda dates back to the mid-1980s. In 1986, prior to founding al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was tapped by Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to build a cave complex in Haqqani-controlled territory in the southeast to train Arab volunteers to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001, it was the Haqqanis' turn to come to the aid of al-Qaeda, helping their fighters elude U.S. forces in the Tora Bora mountains. According to the current head of the Haqqani network, Sirraj Haqqani, his network's cooperation with al-Qaeda is "at its highest limit." Indeed, recent reports emanating out of the Haqqani stronghold in North Waziristan confirms Siraj's claims.
Al-Qaeda shelters, trains, and plans attacks under the protection of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen recently described the area as "the epicenter of terrorism ... where al-Qaeda lives." In the past four months alone, drone strikes in North Waziristan have killed al-Qaeda's number three operative, Mustafa al-Yazid, and his replacement, Sheikh Fateh al Masri.
The only thing more unlikely than a negotiated settlement with the Haqqanis is the prospect of the group breaking ties with al-Qaeda.
Siraj Haqqani is the younger son of Jallaludin Haqqani, born to his Arab wife. Unlike his father, a tribal figure and storied resistance fighter, Siraj sees himself in grandiose religious terms--a product of having grown up among foreign Islamic extremists in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, where his Arab mother reportedly lives. U.S. intelligence officials working in the region describe Siraj as "a lot more worldly than his father" and "not content with his father's methods." It's believed that Siraj spearheaded the introduction of suicide bombing into Afghanistan only a few years after the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Under Siraj's leadership, the Haqqani network is increasingly dependent on international, fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations for funding, training, and ideological credential. That's part of why organizations like al-Qaeda--and others--enjoy sanctuary with the Haqqanis in North Waziristan. This despite a constant barrage of drone-fired missiles that have thus far been unable to convince Siraj to expel al-Qaeda. Although the expanded drone campaign in North Waziristan, coupled with a massive Special Forces push against the Haqqanis in Afghanistan, is having a major impact on the network's operations, they refuse to break ranks with al-Qaeda. As long as this mutually beneficial relationship continues (and there is no reason to believe it will cease), negotiating with the Haqqani network is not an option.
Image: Jalaluddin Haqqani. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.