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EXPLAINED: Al-Qaeda Ties, Attack On Indian Assets. Why Haqqani Network In Taliban Is Driving Worries

Anas Haqqani (centre, right) at a meeting with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai (centre, left) and other officials in Kabul

Anas Haqqani (centre, right) at a meeting with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai (centre, left) and other officials in Kabul

It is the fighting core of Taliban, but maintains operational autonomy and is said to share close ties with Pakistan, making India and the global community wary

They provide the fighting backbone of the Taliban but are only loosely part of the group, maintaining their own organisation and chain of command. Now, after the fall of Kabul, senior leaders of the Haqqani Network have landed in the Afghan capital, where they have taken charge of the city’s security and are part of the talks for forming the next government, something that is making the global community, especially India, wary about the direction the country may take under its new rulers. So, who are the Haqqanis, and what makes them so feared?

Why Has Haqqani Network’s Prominence In Afghanistan Sparked Concern?

At a United Nations Security Council meeting following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar sought to flag how “events unfolding in Afghanistan have naturally enhanced global concerns about their implications for both regional and international security". Now that the Taliban have again seized power in India’s neighbourhood — the last time they had done so, during 1996-2001, India had refused to recognise their government in Afghanistan — the concern in the region is centred around a potential recrudescence of terror activities.

“The heightened activities of the proscribed Haqqani Network justify this growing anxiety. Whether it is in Afghanistan or against India, groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate with both impunity and encouragement," Jaishankar said at the UNSC meeting, adding that “we must never countenance sanctuaries for terrorists or overlook their raising of resources".

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That was seen as an indirect reference to Pakistan, which is known to be home to several terror outfits that target India. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is regarded as being a patron of the Haqqani Network — which happens to be a UN- and US-designated terror group — using it as a leverage with the Taliban.

What Is The Haqqani Network?

A UN report in June this year said that “the Haqqani Network remains the Taliban’s most combat-ready forces" and “is reported to have a highly skilled core of members who

specialise in complex attacks and provide technical skills, such as improvised explosive device and rocket construction".

The report further notes that the network “though integrated into the Taliban, retains semi-autonomous status while still reporting directly to the Taliban Supreme Council". In fact, the leader of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is part of the leadership rung of the Taliban immediately next to their supreme leader, Amir al-Muminin Haibatullah Akhundzada.

The Haqqani Network was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, father of Sirajuddin, and one of the most important leaders of the Afghan resistance that fought against the Soviet occupation of the country that had started in 1979. Jalaluddin became a key conduit for the US-backed efforts to funnel arms and money for the Afghan resistance and it was during that time that he also became close to Osama bin Laden, who had arrived in Afghanistan on a call of jihad to fight against the Soviets.

After the departure of the Soviet forces and following the contest among Afghan warlords for control in Afghanistan, Jalaluddin became a minister in the Taliban government when the group finally seized power in 1996. He maintained his ties with Bin Laden, who had by then founded al Qaeda and was plotting the 9/11 attacks against the US. Those links reportedly are still holding strong, despite the Taliban’s assurances — as part of their deal with Washington for having the US withdraw its troops from Afghanistan — that it would not allow terror groups to operate on Afghan soil.

“The Haqqani Network remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and al Qaeda," the UN report said. After the death of Jalaluddin in 2018, the Haqqani Network is now led by Sirajuddin who, the UN says, “is also assessed to be a member of the wider al Qaeda leadership, but not of the al Qaeda core leadership".

What Are The Haqqani Network’s Ties With Pakistan?

According to US intelligence reports, “The Haqqani Network is primarily based in North Waziristan, Pakistan, and [is]… composed of members of the Zadran tribe". The UN report adds that the group maintains “a wider force of between 3,000 to 10,000 traditional armed fighters… in the so-called ‘P2K’ region of Khost, Paktika and Paktiya provinces" of Afghanistan.

Experts say that the “Pakistani Army has consistently refused to launch a military operation in North Waziristan despite the presence of al-Qaeda senior leadership" and that “elements within the Pakistani security establishment continue to view the Haqqani network as a useful ally and proxy force to represent their interests in Afghanistan".

“To this end, Haqqani forces have repeatedly targeted Indian infrastructure and construction projects in Afghanistan," and was responsible, among other incidents, for the attacks against the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009.

A 2020 paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the “Haqqani group, remains firmly anti-Indian" and that “supported by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, they have done the bidding of the ISI for a very long time".

So, while Sirajuddin, in an article in the New York Times last year, talked about the need to “maintain friendly relations with all countries and take their concerns seriously", experts say that would not be seen by India as an unequivocal guarantee of the Haqqani Network’s commitment to peace.

What Role Is It Now Playing In Afghanistan?

As Taliban poured into Afghanistan, members of the Haqqani Network have emerged as key constituents of the interim arrangement that has been put in place for running the show and plotting the next steps for the formation of their government.

Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin, was seen in photographs talking with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and other senior government leaders as part of efforts by the Taliban to set up a government.

Further, the man now in charge of security in Kabul is Khalil Haqqani, another senior leader of the group who has a bounty on his head announced by the US.

The Voice Of America (VOA) quoted an unnamed British intelligence officer as saying that “the fact we have Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani in charge of Kabul security is dismaying, adding that the “Haqqani and al Qaeda have a long history together, you could argue they are intertwined, and it is highly unlikely they will cut ties".

It also quoted a retired British diplomat as saying that having the Haqqani Network in charge of Kabul was like the “fox being put in charge of a chicken coop". The Haqqanis playing a prominent role so far in the new regime shows that the Taliban are “putting forward the worst elements of their loose coalition, which sends a terrible signal to women, girls and civil society", Ivor Roberts told VOA. He, too, was of the view that “it increases the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism again".

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first published:August 22, 2021, 11:01 IST