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Sirajuddin Haqqani: Pakistan’s ‘Sword Arm’ And ‘Strategic Asset’ In Afghanistan – Analysis

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By Sudha Ramachandran*

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the 48-year-old leader of the Haqqani Network (HN), has gained considerably from the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. This was underscored on September 7, when the Taliban unveiled its interim government and announced that Sirajuddin would be in charge of the powerful interior ministry. In this position, he will not only control Afghanistan’s intelligence agencies, police, and courts, but also appoint provincial governors. This will enable him to pack provincial and local administrations with his loyalists Indian Express, September 14).

Close relatives of Sirajuddin, including his paternal uncle Khalil-ur-Rahman Haqqani and other HN leaders like Najibullah Haqqani, Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Tajmir Jawad have also been allotted important ministries and posts. At least ten ministers, whose names figured in the first list of ministers announced by the Taliban on September 7, are from Loya Paktia, which is the HN’s stronghold (First Post, September 8).

Heated and acrimonious discussion preceded the formation of the Taliban’s interim cabinet. There was a serious face-off involving Sirajuddin and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The latter led the Taliban negotiation team and clinched the deal with the United States that culminated in the exit of American troops from Afghanistan. He was poised to head the new Taliban government. Sirajuddin, however, not only managed to secure plum postings for himself and his supporters, but also has successfully marginalized Baradar and the relative moderates in the Taliban. He has emerged victorious from this round of intra-Taliban power struggle (Times of India, September 18).

Over the past two decades, Sirajuddin’s bond with Pakistan was strong. Pakistan facilitated his meteoric rise and in return Sirajuddin played the role of ‘sword arm’ of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Will he continue to do so in his new position as interior minister in the Taliban government? Sirajuddin’s role vis-à-vis Pakistan may evolve in the coming years.

Jalaluddin’s Aura

The eldest son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a legendary mujahideen fighter and founder of the HN, Sirajuddin was apparently disinterested in politics or jihad in his early years. He did not participate either in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s or the intra-Afghan civil wars of the 1990s. It was only in 2002 that he joined the insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition. Fiercely anti-American, he is believed to have played an important role in convincing his father, a close ally of the CIA in the 1980s, to join hands with the Taliban and al-Qaeda against the U.S (Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2020).

Sirajuddin benefited immensely from being the son of Jalaluddin. He became the HN’s de facto leader around 2005 due to his father’s advancing age and health problems (Afghan Analysts Network, February 10, 2016). Further, he formally took over the reins of the HN when the death of his father was announced in 2018 (Tolo News, September 4, 2018). Jalaluddin commanded great respect among the Taliban and global jihadists and Sirajuddin’s stock in these circles grew on this account.

Terrorist Tag

Under Sirajuddin’s leadership, the HN captured global attention with several high-profile attacks, some of which resulted in a large number of civilian casualties. These included attacks on:

  • the Serena Hotel in Kabul in January 2008;
  • the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008;
  • the U.S Embassy, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, the Afghan Presidential Palace, and the Afghan National Directorate of Security headquarters in Kabul all in a single day in 2011;
  • the U.S. consulate in Herat in 2013; and
  • a truck bomb explosion at a busy intersection in Kabul in May 2017 that killed around 150 people.

Sirajuddin also cultivated strong links with al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan the Jaish-e-Mohammed. In September 2007, Sirajuddin was accordingly included in the UN sanctions list for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing, or perpetrating of acts or activities” in support of these groups (United Nations Security Council, 2007). The U.S State department designated him a global terrorist in 2008 and declared the HN a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2012. Sirajuddin carries a price on his head, with an initial bounty of $5 million offered by the State Department for information leading to his capture raised to $10 million in 2014. As an Indian government official pointed out, “a terrorist label is regarded as a ‘badge of honor’ among terrorists and having received this within a few years of picking up arms worked to Sirajuddin’s benefit, raising his stature in jihadist circles.” [1]

Pakistan’s Strategic Asset

As Pakistan’s ‘sword arm’ in Afghanistan during the insurgency, Sirajuddin carried out attacks at the bidding of the ISI. The suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 reportedly involved the ISI and was executed by the HN, as were several of the major terror attacks targeting India and the U.S. (Reuters, September 22, 2011; Indian Express, March 24, 2014). Such attacks on Indian interests and assets in Afghanistan were aimed at forcing India out of Afghanistan. With the Taliban in power and Sirajuddin in a key ministry in the Taliban government, Indian officials believe “he will function as Pakistan’s strategic asset in Afghanistan, not only to expand Pakistan’s interests in the country but also to ensure that India’s influence here is cut back substantially.” [2]

In the past, Sirajuddin proved useful to the Pakistan military in brokering peace deals with warring sectarian militias and with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). With the resurgence of the TTP in recent months and a sharp rise in its attacks in Pakistan, the ISI may again lean on Sirajuddin to rein in the organization (Terrorism Monitor, March 26).

Balancing Act

The question is whether Sirajuddin will now collaborate with the ISI. After all, Sirajuddin, the HN, and the Taliban are now not as dependent on Pakistan as they were as insurgents in need of bases in Pakistan after 9/11. Besides this, the TTP provides Sirajuddin with leverage over Pakistan, which he may not be keen to give up.

At the same time, it is Pakistan and the ISI that provide Sirajuddin a vital edge in the intra-Taliban power struggle, which is unlikely to abate in the near future. Hence, Sirajuddin can be expected to play a careful balancing act vis-à-vis Pakistan. He can be expected to ensure that India’s influence in Afghanistan is shut off. However, on the question of the TTP, he is likely to neither defy nor fully obey Islamabad’s demands.

Extending diplomatic recognition to a Taliban government was always expected to be fraught with problems for numerous countries. It is all the more so with Sirajuddin backed by the ISI and winning the intra-Taliban power struggle. As Afghanistan’s new interior minister, Sirajuddin will consolidate his power in Afghanistan. This will make it difficult, if not impossible, for some countries, especially India, to diplomatically recognize the Taliban.

*About the author: Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times and Geopolitics.

Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation at Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 9

Notes

[1] Author’s Interview, Indian government official based in New Delhi, September 22.

[2] Ibid.

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