The province of Paktia in Afghanistan bore maximum brunt in terms of death and destruction as the battle raged in eastern Afghanistan between Taliban and the government forces in August 2016. Over a thousand strong Taliban force led by the deadly Haqqani Network’s senior commanders stormed the Janikhel district, a strategic location with multiple routes into Pakistan, in late August. Nearly 30 security personnel died in a pitch battle as Taliban militants seized the opportunity by taking over the district and a huge cache of arms and ammunition along with military vehicles. However, soon joint air strikes led by the US dealt a major blow to the Taliban by killing at least four senior Haqqani commanders identified as Abdul Wali, Kakai, Khaibar and Matiullah. Speaking to Reuters, Naqeeb Ahmad Atal, the spokesman for the governor of Paktia, claimed that over 120 Taliban militants mostly affiliated to the Haqqani Network (HQN) were killed in the offensives in Janikhel.
But Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid downplayed the air strikes saying only eight of his people had died. Despite the fall of Janikhel and the loss of men and materials, the government forces have one thing more to cheer about, that is the relative success achieved by going after the Haqqani commanders in their (HQN’s) strongholds. This is not the first time that Afghan forces have achieved success against the HQN. In months of April and June this year, HQN suffered some setbacks in terms of men and materials in the hands of Afghan security forces when at least eleven of its commanders were arrested and couple of hideouts and weapon depots were busted in Khost and Paktika province.
While maintaining safe havens in both sides of the Durand Line, HQN’s strongholds are in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and in Loya Paktia region of Afghanistan. This guerrilla insurgent group is associated with many high profile attacks across Afghanistan, including its Capital city Kabul, in recent times. The UN, United Kingdom and the United States have listed the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization. In September 2012, the US state Department blacklisted the HQN as a foreign terrorist organization. In November 2012, the United Nations Security Council added the HQN to the blacklisted Taliban affiliated groups. Both Canada and United Kingdom imposed proscriptions on the HQN and listed it as terrorist entity in May 2013 and March 2015 respectively.
The HQN is long regarded as Taliban’s conjoined twin, which is presently headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan Talban’s second in command. To note, a bounty of up to $10 million is placed on Sirajuddin Haqqani under the US’ Rewards for Justice Program. There are some others in the Haqqani Network too who have $5 million bounty on their heads as announced by the Rewards for Justice Program. They are Khalil al Rahman Haqqani, Yahiya Haqqani and Aziz Haqqani.
In August 2016, Pakistan’s lack of interest or reluctance to act against HQN was nailed when the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter did not give Congressional certification to Islamabad for satisfactory action against the Network and on the basis of that the Pentagon blocked the release of $300 million military aid to Pakistan under Coalition Support Fund.
Many acts of violence in Afghanistan are attributed to the deadly Haqqani Network. Some of them are targeted at the US and Indian interests over the last decades. The HQN’s brazen attacks in Kabul, the heart of Afghanistan, too symbolize its capability and strategic planning strength. Some instances are listed here:
April 19, 2016: The attack in Kabul was claimed by the Afghan Taliban and there were indications that strike units of HQN (comprising of the so-called Kabul Attack Network) were behind the deadly attack against the security agency responsible for protecting senior government officials and VIPs stationed at the famed Directorate 10 (D-10) building. The deadly attack killed nearly 70 people and injured over 300 others.
April 02, 2015: Suicide bombing outside the governor’s house in Afghanistan’s Khost province killed nearly 17 people, including protesters who had gathered to demand the ouster of the acting governor of the province, Abdul-Jabbar Naeemi, for charges of corruption and land grabbing. According to the Afghanistan Intelligence agency, the HQN was involved as the suicide bomber was identified as Shah Ghulam, who was recruited and guided by Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Abdul Rahman.
Beyond these recent resurge, 2011 was HQN’s most successful year in terms of violence perpetrated in Afghanistan. In that year, HQN and Taliban militants jointly unleashed mayhem in Kabul and elsewhere targeting US Embassy, NATO Headquarters, Kabul Bank (in Jalalabad), Hotel Intercontinental Kabul, etc., killing over a hundred people and damaging properties worth millions. In the same year, HQN targeted US and India managed construction projects on the Kabul-Gardez road and in Paktia Province.
On the back foot?
The Haqqanis too suffered huge setbacks due to large-scale deployment of drones (Unmanned aerial vehicle) in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of HQN’s senior leaders perished in drone strikes and targeted attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Haqqani brothers such as Nasiruddin and Badruddin Haqqani were killed in the past in Pakistan. Senior members of HQN such as Sirajuddin Khademi, a logistics commander, and Sher Ullah were killed in drone strikes between June and August 2016 in Paktia province.
Many more of HQN’s senior commanders as well as foot soldiers were captured during various operations. In October 2014, Afghan intelligence service informed about the capture of two senior Haqqani members, Anas Haqqani and Qari Abdul Rasheed Omari, who have been in the custody since then. Anas Haqqani has been sentenced to death by a Kabul Court. The HQN is now attempting to trade his release in exchange of few (Joshua Boyle, Canada, and Caitlan Coleman, US) abducted by them back in 2012 with the Afghan government. It also threatened to target judicial installations if the Afghan government follows through on executing Anas Haqqani. A Taliban statement reportedly said, “If the higher courts also uphold the death sentence to Anas Haqqani, it will have very disastrous and dangerous consequences for the current regime. A lot of blood will be spilled and the government will be responsible for all of it.”
The infamous HQN, whose founders had pioneered Jihad in Afghanistan in early 1970s, is apparently a proverbial ‘Warlord’ dominated network that existed and flourished amid lawlessness along the Durand lines since the days of erstwhile Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The HQN dominated larges swathes of territory for over three decades under the jihadist patriarch Jallaluddin Haqqani, supported by his family and clan members. True to the definition, HQN as an organised Non State Actor (NSA) thrived within a failed or weak state system. It has played substantial role in establishing and nurturing Taliban and Al Qaeda’s infrastructures in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
HQN is undoubtedly one of the longest serving Warlord-Militant conglomerates of the region and one of the most brutal networks operating in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With thousands of armed mercenaries or militias as followers, Haqqanis have gained military and financial strength mostly by exploiting resources under their suzerainty and showing immense robustness against government or coalition forces throughout its existence. Pakistan’s contributions remain a major factor in HQN’s resilience.
Loosely tagged as the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, HQN has been backed by the Pakistan’s secret service since its inception and has been instrumental in destabilizing Afghanistan since last couple of decades closely aligning with Al Qaeda and Taliban.
In June this year, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a senior Afghan leader and the Vice President of Afghanistan, observed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the real enemy of Afghanistan. According to Dostum, the present Taliban leadership, including the newly crowned Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob (eldest son of Mullah Omar), is mere nominal heads, but the real authority lies with HQN’s Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is trusted by the ISI. As per the US state department, Pakistan has not taken concerted and serious steps against the Haqqani Network and indirectly Washington administration somewhat admitted that Pakistan has been playing a double game throughout the course of war on terror.
If some reports are to be believed, for example one report published in the Diplomat magazine, Taliban’s effort to storm Janikhel was backed by Pakistani agencies and the whole operation was aimed at repositioning the Haqqani Network deep into the Paktia province. It is more or less certain that this battle for Janikhel and nearby districts such as Tsamkani and Patan is largely to facilitate the Haqqani Network’s foothold and for its robust consolidation in South-eastern Afghanistan. If it manages to consolidate further deep into the province, the Haqqani Network could well utilise this opportunity to target major cities, including Kabul, from this strategic location.
Despite many past military reversals, HQN has actually not weakened, rather with its support system intact in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Network has the capability to resurge and can increase its influence over other fringe Taliban factions across the borders. Otherwise known as Taliban’s Miramshah Shura, the HQN has in the meantime expanded its outreach towards the powerfull Quetta Shura of Taliban. With safe heavens or secured sanctuaries inside Pakistan and abundant resources both in terms of men and materials, the HQN remains the most potent force against the government in Afghanistan.
 Also for a detailed seminal study on the Haqqani Network evolution and ISI’s tacit support, See Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, “Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012”, Oxford University Press, 2013.