x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The US wanted a puppet, but made an enemy instead

The United States fights history of its own making in Afghanistan, which more than anything impedes its ability to win over former foes like the vilified Haqqani network.

The United States seems to have a tremendous ability to make enemies of friends, allies, and possible friends and allies. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, and his son, Sirajuddin, the group's operational head, offer two examples.

Born in 1950 in the province of Paktia, Afghanistan, Jalaluddin was 29 when the Soviets invaded, just the right age for a young man to lead his own tribe in the struggle against intervention. He soon established himself as a formidable leader and was, as a result, cultivated as a "unilateral" asset by the CIA. His involvement with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence came later.

When the Taliban began their expansion after capturing Kandahar, Hamid Karzai, the current Afghan president, was a Taliban general and Jalaluddin was fighting against them. Only when Kabul fell in 1996 did he begin cooperating with the Pakistani intelligence, albeit reluctantly.

Five years later, when the US invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban disintegrated, Jalaluddin went his own way. Interestingly, it was the CIA that reached out to the Haqqani leader, with a request to join the post-Taliban government in Kabul. He refused, unwilling to serve under Hamid Karzai and wary of being associated with the Tajik and Uzbek dominated "Northern Alliance", which had a stranglehold on US decision making at the time.

Hoping that the US would pull out, Jalaluddin waited until 2003 before renewing his struggle to free Afghanistan from another foreign invader. It was at this stage that he again turned to the ISI and Pakistan. President Karzai's emissaries sought to pull him back into the Afghan-US sphere of influence, reportedly by offering him the assignment of prime minister, but he refused. The US had lost its opportunity.

Fast forward to 2009. It was then that General Stanley McChrystal, as the top commander of Nato forces, chose to single out Jalaluddin as the only Afghan that the US should not consider negotiating with. At that point the Haqqani network's followers were estimated at fewer than 5,000; today they are estimated at around 15,000 and growing.

By singling him out, Jalaluddin Haqqani has become the true symbol of the Afghan struggle for freedom from foreign occupation. And in many ways, America's on again, off again relationship is the reason why.

So where does the US go from here?

The first step is recognising the missed opportunities. While 2001 offered an unparalleled chance for the US to win Afghan favour - Afghans were fed up with the Taliban and were ready to cooperate - US forces did everything possible to alienate the locals. If, however, they had merely realised that in Jalaluddin they had a priceless asset that the CIA had carefully and exclusively cultivated, we might not be in the situation we are today.

Jalaluddin was tailor-made to be of benefit to the American-led effort: he was an Afghan war hero, the scion of a respected Pashtun family and acceptable across the ethnic divide. His disqualifications were that, while prepared to further US interests, he would not be their puppet. For Jalaluddin, Afghan interests would always come first. Not only would he have resisted dominance of a Northern Alliance in government, he would have found a prolonged US presence unacceptable.

The US wanted a puppet, and got one. In the process it lost an asset and a potential ally. This converted him into an enemy and, by demonising him, has only strengthened him, at least judging by his number of supporters. Instead of a pro-American true Afghan leader, they now have an implacable enemy, to whose banner an increasing number of Afghans are gathering.

All factions of Afghan Taliban made it absolutely clear that they had no enmity with Pakistan. Jalaluddin, however, needed and offered extra. He was frequently harboured in North Waziristan. Consequently, while he needed very little assistance from the ISI, the two sides reached an understanding, whereby the Haqqani chief and his group were permitted to flit on either side of the Durand Line at will and, in return, the ISI received regular updates.

It is quite certain that, like any intelligent intelligence agency, the ISI maintains links with the Haqqani network, just as it does with the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

But a caveat is needed here: the days of the Taliban carrying out operations planned by, or under instructions of, the ISI are over. Maintaining links may be mutually beneficial for all sides, but both Jalaluddin and Mullah Omar would send the ISI packing with a bunch of fleas in its ears if they attempted to even suggest what their networks should do. Today's Afghan Taliban could instruct the ISI on covert operations; they need no "handling".

Nato and the Americans will continue to target Haqqani network operatives - they captured their latest high-value Haqqani figure at the weekend. But if the US is fighting its war in the present, it's worth remembering the local view. For them, history is behind their fight.


Brig Gen Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer