Dealing with the Haqqani Network (Foreign Policy)

Dealing with the Haqqani Network

By Jeffrey Dressler
Friday, September 23, 2011

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

During a Senate Armed Services hearing yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen alleged what many of us have believed for some time: Elements within Pakistan's security services, perhaps most notably current and retired Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) officials, provide operational support and resources for the Haqqani Network to wage their insurgency against U.S., coalition and Afghan forces inside Afghanistan.

"With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy," Mullen told the committee, referencing a massive bomb attack on a NATO base September 10 as well as last week's attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. "We also have credible evidence that they were behind the June 28th attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller but effective operations," he added.

By my count, there have been at least 15 other high-profile attacks going back to 2008 that can be publicly linked to the Haqqani network besides the attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul earlier this month. These include several complex attacks in Afghanistan's southeast that involved suicide car bombs and gunmen armed with explosives and AK-47s, the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed 41 and injured over 130 in July 2008, a multi-pronged attack on Afghan ministries and the prison directorate in Kabul that killed 26 in February 2009, an assault on a Kabul Bank branch that killed more than 40 in February of this year, and perhaps most notably, a complex nighttime assault on Kabul's Intercontinental hotel during the height of this summer's fighting season. During the attack on the Intercontinental, Afghan intelligence intercepted calls between the attackers and Badruddin Haqqani who was directing the assault from Pakistan. Furthermore, the Pakistani military has assisted the Haqqani network's expansion from North Waziristan into neighboring Kurram Agency over the past year. This will provide the network with even more sanctuary and additional infiltration routes into southeastern Afghanistan.

But what can the United States do about this support for the Haqqanis? While it is important to maintain a relationship with Pakistan, it's also necessary to distinguish between the civilian and military component of our support. Pakistan's civilian leadership is not the harbinger of a decades-long policy of support for proxy groups such as the Haqqani network. And although the civilian government nominally controls the military, that's not the case in practice. Therefore, any restriction on U.S. aid should be careful not to punish civil society.

Senior military leaders, such as army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI head Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, are the folks the U.S. need to be talking to. However, pressuring the military (of which ISI is a part) to take action against the Haqqanis is a non-starter. No possible combination of aid restrictions, sanctions or public chastisement is capable of changing the military's relationship with the Haqqanis at this point, not with U.S. forces in Afghanistan on the decline and the belief in Pakistan's military circles that the U.S. is not going to succeed in Afghanistan still prevalent. The only conceivable solution at this point is to go after high-value Haqqani targets even more aggressively than before. There is a senior leadership cadre that, if removed from the fight, would have significant effects on the network's command and control infrastructure. The Haqqanis are different from other groups, such as the Pakistan Taliban, in this regard. The senior leadership corps is based on familial relations, is extremely closely knit, is directly responsible for strategic, operational and often tactical guidance, and is the only trusted group that liaises with elements of the Pakistani security services and the leadership of affiliated terrorist groups in the tribal areas. The removal of the top-tier leadership, coupled with increased pressure on the group in eastern Afghanistan, offers the best chance to degrade and possibly even neutralize the network.

After Mullen's comments, it's pretty clear that some really tough decisions will have to be made with respect to the Haqqani's sanctuary in Pakistan -- despite Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik's recent remarks that the country will never allow U.S. boots on Pakistani soil. Just today, Kayani starkly rejected the allegations of a Pakistan-Haqqani relationship in response to Mullen's testimony. Of course, any possible U.S. action in Pakistan will have consequences -- but those consequences may not have as serious impact as some believe. Pakistan has the ability to shut down critical supply lines running from their port city of Karachi to Afghanistan. However, given the military's own economic interests in keeping the lines open and the myriad criminal actors whose livelihoods depend on taxing and extorting truckers, any long-term shutdown is most likely a hollow threat. The United States has already explored increasing the capacity of the northern distribution network that has expanded significantly over the past several years.

Certainly, Pakistan has the ability to respond militarily to unilateral action in their tribal areas, but this would likely cause a complete break in relations, and with that, an end to all military assistance that is critical not only for the Army's strength and survival but also their influence over Pakistan's civilian leadership. The United States withheld $800 million in military aid this summer which is only one third of promised security assistance. Holding back or canceling the total package would be a real blow to Pakistan's armed forces.

Additionally, limited U.S. unilateral action in Pakistan's tribal areas, at least conceptually, is not much different than the current U.S. drone program that regularly strikes targets in Pakistan's tribal areas. Since the Pakistani military and government have largely ignored sovereignty claims and acquiesced to the drone strikes, it isn't a stretch to assume that they could treat limited, unilateral raids into the tribal areas in the same manor -- even after Malik's statement. Speculation aside, the only thing that seems clear amidst all the confusion is that if the U.S. doesn't follow through, our words will have even less meaning than they already do.

Jeffrey Dressler is a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and author of the ISW report, "The Haqqani Network: From Pakistan to Afghanistan."