By Adam Cohen
In a year of promises, unmatched violence, and pointed fingers, public attention has been diverted away from the Taliban and onto a new source of violent opposition. The Haqqani network is now the target of American ire in Afghanistan.Recent Haqqani attacks like the daring assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul have infuriated the American military and political brass. As the United States confronts this persistent and lethal force, the flaws in the U.S. effort to root out terrorism and establish stable governance in Afghanistan turn out to have been inherent in the U.S. strategy since the very beginning.
United By a Common Enemy
To start, the United States has itself to blame for the strength of the Haqqani network.
Back in the 1980s, it was the policy of the Reagan administration to support rebel groups anywhere resisting Soviet influence and occupation. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the blue-eyed, red-bearded leader of the Haqqani clan, was—along with Osama bin Laden—one of many mujahedeen who received covert CIA aid through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Haqqani’s mission was simple: rout the Red Army and its Afghan puppet regime. Little else mattered to the United States than ensuring that Afghanistan became the Soviet equivalent of Vietnam.
So when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, so too did the United States. In the ensuing vacuum, radical, brutal, and unpopular groups like the Haqqanis were able to establish a foothold in Afghanistan as the country stumbled its way into the post-Cold War world. These factions grew stronger as the international community ignored Afghanistan’s grinding poverty and bloody civil war. From the chaotic infighting rose the fundamentalist Taliban, Haqqani allies who came to power and invited Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to make Afghanistan their base of operations. The world could no longer turn away after 9/11.
Confronted with the invading American forces, those who defeated the Red Army turned next to expel a one-time ally from their homeland. Once the scourges of the Soviets, the Haqqanis became the bane of another occupying force, this time with the help of the ISI and a healthy recruitment from allied madrassas—as well as among Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks devoted to global jihad.
They Haven’t Gone Anywhere
To declare the Haqqani network a serious threat only now would be comical, if it were not so depressing and costly. Although the Taliban has been the more visible U.S. enemy in Afghanistan, the reality is that much of the insurgency’s strength has come from the Haqqanis. In fact, the network’s reach from its base of operations in Pakistan’s tribal North Waziristan has steadily expanded since 2008 as far east as the Afghan provinces of Logar, Wardak, and Ghazni, as well as into the fragile capital of Kabul.
The network is one of the leading producers and distributors of bomb materiel for the insurgency. It harasses the international effort in the northeastern part of the country through a deadly mix of roadside bombs, kidnappings, smuggling rings, and ambushes at construction sites. Ironically, these are the very same projects the Haqqanis extort the locals to build in the first place – the Haqqanis win either way.
After a series of intense, violent, and highly public Haqqani attacks in and around Kabul in recent months, the United States finally seems interested in confronting the network head-on. But having allowed it to grow in lethality and influence, America now faces a self-confident and serious foe.
Peace by Rifle?
The United States still does not know how to confront insurgent enemies. It does not seem to realize that its stated interest in reaching a political solution with its antagonists is in direct conflict with its other stated desire of destroying them.
No matter how many secret talks are held, and no matter how many public statements proclaiming the desire for an inclusive settlement are made, the U.S. effort to confront the network head-on will only run the process of negotiations into the ground.
In a region where actions speak louder than words, persisting in a strategy of complicated cross-border drone strikes and military operations hampers the primary U.S. objectives. Even some in the armed forces have acknowledged that military efforts will ultimately fail to prevent Jalaluddin Haqqani—or his two sons, who are growing in influence—from maintaining a commanding presence over large swaths of the country once the war is over. If this is the case, there is nothing to be gained from fruitless shows of force.
Simply placing oneself in the Haqqanis’ shoes—and in the shoes of those who live under their patronage—makes the danger of the U.S. strategy abundantly clear. Much like strategic bombing in World War II showed, attacks with large margins of error (i.e., which kill a lot of civilians) tend to make local populations cling more tightly to their leaders, however repressive they may be. This makes the support system for insurgent leaders stronger and therefore heightens their resolve. With local support, men like Haqqani will hold out for the international community to buckle first. The Haqqanis have stated their willingness to negotiate, but only on their terms. This suggests they believe they can outlast a U.S. military already committed to retreat and dictate the terms of a settlement.
Few Afghans want the Haqqanis in power, but the current U.S. strategy will not dislodge them. Pursuing diplomatic and military operations concurrently only entrenches the network further.
The Haqqani network saga reveals much of what has plagued and doomed the war in Afghanistan all along. The United States cannot defeat the Haqqanis any more than it can produce an inclusive peace for Afghanistan. This will be the job of the Afghan people after the Americans have gone.
Adam Cohen is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.