x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Haqqani 'terrorist' listing complicates US withdrawal

A relatively stable Afghanistan might emerge if fighters negotiate, but the US could be the loser

In September 2011, the Haqqani network in Pakistan took the blame for a deadly attack on the US embassy in Kabul, across the border in Afghanistan. A week later, during testimony on Capitol Hill, the US military's top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, referred to the Haqqanis as a "veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). And a year after that, the US added the Haqqani Network to its list of terrorist groups.

All of which has me wondering: why then, and what now?

In the 1980s, Jalaluddin Haqqani was exclusively a CIA asset. In the 1990s he fought against the Pakistan-backed Afghan government of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and subsequently, against the Taliban. Then, after 1996, he most likely became associated with the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's spy service.

By that time Jalaluddin was a war veteran with about 17 years of experience behind him. The Haqqani patriarch certainly needed no education in guerrilla warfare from the ISI; in fact, he could have given them lessons.

Yet by blacklisting the Haqqani network now, the US may unwittingly be emboldening another group of militant actors, which will complicate the possible troop drawdown in 2014. Indeed, by vilifying the Haqqanis, the Americans have positioned Mullah Omar's Afghan Taliban to come out on top.

A team led by Anatol Lieven, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London, met recently with senior representatives of the Afghan Taliban. According to a summary of that meeting, the Taliban might consider a ceasefire to facilitate talks, and is prepared to discuss a US military stabilisation force operating in Afghanistan for another decade.

This force would be stationed in five primary military bases - Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul - as long as the US presence contributed to Afghan security and did not constrain Afghan independence and Islamic jurisprudence. These bases could also not be used for American attacks against neighbours, such as Iran and Pakistan.

The emphasis on Islamic jurisprudence merely reasserts the Taliban's rejection of the Afghan constitution. But Mullah Omar's group is unlikely to return to the strict form of Wahhabism, the faction that favours a stringent version of Islam. It is far more likely that the Afghan Taliban would favour an equitable, democratic but Islamic judicial system in accordance with tribal customs.

But the real surprise detailed by Mr Lieven is the Taliban's apparent willingness to negotiate a prolonged US presence in Afghanistan. The condition that these bases will not be permitted to be used to stoke unrest in Pakistan and Iran is obviously intended to reassure both neighbours of their concerns, and the Taliban's desire for harmonious relations.

Nonetheless, why would the Afghan Taliban suddenly express an openness to having American troops housed in Afghanistan until 2024 to help ensure stability?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the Haqqanis again.

The Haqqani network is now the largest, most influential and most strategically located of the "Afghan freedom fighters". Were the US to negotiate with all factions, the Haqqanis would have a major political role to play, much greater than Mullah Omar's outfit. Therefore, it suits the Taliban leader to have the Haqqanis excluded. Since the US will not be negotiating the future of Afghanistan with a terrorist-labelled group, any future political dispensation in Afghanistan will not include the Haqqanis.

That explains Mullah Omar's sudden willingness to make a pact with the US. But what is going to be the outcome of this?

There is no doubt the Haqqanis will remain a thorn in the side of Afghanistan post-2014, the previously stated date for the start of an American withdrawal. If a so-called stability force were to stay on after 2014, US forces would be deployed to deal with Haqqani attacks. And if they were deployed their methods of military operation would be no more effective than they are today.

As a consequence, an increasing number of Afghans will again begin to view the post-2014 political dispensation of Afghanistan as "American proxies", and the cycle of violence will keep growing until it either explodes, or the US finally packs up and leaves the region to its chaotic future.

Moreover, Afghans with a dislike for the US, regardless of tribal or ethnic affiliation, will now be more likely to join the Haqqanis. The Haqqanis are continuing to grow in number and they will be the force to reckon with, from here onwards, terrorist label or no.

There is, of course, another possibility: that Mullah Omar will use this offer to the US for an extended stay in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip with the Haqqanis. In such a scenario, Afghan political leaders, pushed by more emboldened militant groups, might then refuse the American request to stay on and force them out, just as the Iraqis did.

In such an eventuality, the internecine political jostling for power could be minimised and a relatively stable Afghanistan might emerge.

Either way, the US loses. And then it will need a scapegoat.

Perhaps that explains why some see the Haqqanis as a "veritable arm" of the ISI.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer