‘Totally baseless, a lie and no truth in it’. This is what an Afghan presidential spokesman said after a not-too-unimportant TV station reported contacts between Kabul and the Haqqani network, the most ruthless outfit of the Afghan insurgency. Is there no fire at all for all the smoke? asks Thomas Ruttig.
It all started with a report of al-Jazeera on Sunday (‘Karzai holds talks with Haqqani’). It claimed that President Karzai had met the commander of the ‘Haqqani network’ (1), Serajuddin Haqqani, ‘in face-to-face talks’. This generated a swift and serious reply by the President’s spokesman Waheed Omar who rejected the report with a rare journalistic pirouette, a triple denial: ‘The report is totally baseless, it is a lie and there is no truth in it.’ He also called it part of a conspiracy to undermine a government-initiated peace plan and of a ‘chain of irresponsible rumours’.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the new commander of the US and ISAF troops in Afghanistan General David Petraeus ‘said he spoke by telephone to Karzai on Tuesday […] and said the Afghan president assured him that he had not met with any Haqqani leader “in recent days, or I think at any time”’.
A spokesman of the Haqqanis also rejected the claim as ‘rubbish’; ‘[t]here is not even one per cent truth in these reports’, a senior Haqqani network commander was quoted. ‘Why he [Haqqani] would go to Kabul to meet the US puppet at a time when we have an upper hand in the battlefield’ (Mushtaq Yusufzai, ‘Taliban Deny Haqqani’s Meeting with Karzai’, The News, 27 June 2010). So did the Pakistani army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas who told al-Jazeera he had ‘no knowledge of such a meeting taking place’.
Hekmat Karzai, however, a relative of the President and director of the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies who is rumoured to be in contact with insurgency leaders himself, fueled the speculations. He said to al-Jazeera that such talks would be that of a pragmatic leader who understands the realities of Afghanistan and the region. The already quotedLos Angeles Times says that ‘U.S. officials acknowledge that Pakistan has begun trying to seed a rapprochement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Haqqani network’.
At least al-Jazeera’s reference to Serajuddin Haqqani seems to be incorrect. It is hard to believe that someone who is as high up on the US target list as him would walk (or be spirited) into the presidential palace just like this. Also Haqqani’s confrontational mood after he lost scores of relatives and important commanders through drone attacks and Kabul’s accusations that he organized many extremely violent attacks in the Afghan capital would, under normal circumstances, stand in the way of such talks. Former Taleban envoy to the UN Abdul Hakim Mujahed told Radio Azadi, the Afghan branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in an interview (listen to it here, in Pashto) that such talks would ‘not make sense between such hard enemies’ – but added ‘without a prior arrangement’.
That is not to say that any contacts would be unthinkable and did happen. Some Afghanistan watchers maintain that there were some meetings going on on a lower level. Also on al-Jazeera, former deputy EU envoy Michael Semple said that ‘Afghans that I talk to… passed along stories of shuttle diplomacy between Ibrahim Haqqani [he uses the takhallus/surname ‘Omari’ – AAN] and Karzai’s government […]. They claimed Haqqani would travel between Islamabad, Kabul, and Miranshah’ (‘Afghan talks raise speculation’, al-Jazeera, 27 June 2010).
This was confirmed by other Kabul-based sources. According to them, two meetings had taken place within the last 20 days (‘after Interior Minister Atmar’s resignation’), including Jalaluddin Haqqani’s brother and son. Ibrahim Omari and Badruddin Haqqani, Afghan non-governmental figures dealing with ‘reconciliation’ and ISI chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha. (Ergo: Waheed Omar was right: neither the President nor anyone in the government had seen anyone from the Haqqani network.) General Pasha had apparently brought the two Haqqanis to Kabul.
The involvement of Ibrahim Omari, in particular, would not be a first. He actually had surrendered to the Kabul government after the US-led military intervention in 2001 and was kept as a ‘guest’ by high-level Ministry of Defence people linked to the former Northern Alliance, first in Logar and then in Kabul. His presence seems to have not been used for any political initiative then. The reason was, maybe, the line of the then US government: ‘no talks with terrorists’. In 2003 or 2004, it transpired that Omari had been allowed to walk away. He went to Pakistan.
Parts of the Pakistani establishment have since long been trying to sell the Haqqani network as ‘moderate Islamists’ – which they definitely not are. Quite the opposite: Haqqani the Elder is the veteran armed Islamist in Afghanistan and has been considered an ISI asset ever since (see Catherine Philps, ‘Pervez Musharraf was playing “double game” with US’,Times online, 17 February 2009). This started immediately after the Taleban regime collapsed in 2001. It has not fallen on deaf ears. US Central Command Director of Intelligence Maj Gen Michael Flynn was quoted in the The Atlantic magazine (see here) as saying that Jalaluddin Haqqani was ‘absolutely salvageable’.
People who have met Jalaluddin Haqqani personally say also that he is not ‘very political’. His political program would not go far beyond the general demand of an ‘Islamic government for Afghanistan’, i.e. the implementation of Sharia. He also would not be much interested in ministerial posts.
Recently, Pakistan has positioned itself ‘as a as a bridge between [the Karzai] administration and the Haqqani network’ (an unnamed Pakistani security official to AFP on 16 June) and a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Islamabad states that ‘Pakistan will continue helping Afghanistan achieve re-integration and reconciliation’ (same source). ‘Pakistan has the ultimate card for the Afghan solution,’ the ABC quoted a ‘Pakistani intelligence official’ (see here). Pakistan is even proactive. Another (or the same) security official told the Pakistani news agency PTI on the same day that ‘[i]ntermediaries have presented a roadmap for a political settlement between Kabul and the Haqqanis’.
The Pakistani involvement also would explain why the Haqqanis, despite their confrontational and seemingly intransigent stance, came to Kabul. Their Pakistani minders just told them to go and, considering that the network is based in Pakistan and relies on Pakistani supplies, it would be very difficult for them to say ‘no’.
Such contacts would also make sense from the perspective of the Kabul government. First, and very generally, it would fit into the latest attempts to formulate a policy and start attempts to ‘reconciliation’ or ‘peace’ with the different insurgent groups. Secondly one can assume that the Haqqanis’ prominently reported, multi-casualty attacks in Kabul made Karzai nervous and he would definitely be interested in preventing repetitions. Pakistan that had offered to ‘deliver’ the Haqqani network for reconciliation as long as it happens under its close watch and might promise to make exactly sure that Kabul stays quiet for the time being (until the 3-hour Kabul conference in late July featuring some 40 foreign ministers or until the elections or even beyond?).
Such a deal might look tempting. But can Kabul really be sure that Islamabad can – or is willing to – keep this promise? Or that it would not raise further demands when it has a foot in the door? We are not sure what the current demands are, if there are already some concrete ones – but it might have to do with stronger influence on the Karzai government. Quite a few Afghans indeed already read NSD chief Amrullah Saleh’s recent dismissal as a ‘gift’ for Pakistan. And after all, Saleh has been outspoken against any accommodation with the Taleban.
Would a deal with the Haqqanis make sense? In terms of better security in Kabul: yes, perhaps. In terms of the whole insurgency it would be rather marginal. In contrast to the Taleban mainstream in Southern Afghanistan, the Haqqani network does not permanently control territory in Afghanistan. Even its ‘own’ tribe, the Dzadran, reportedly still tell the Haqqanis to stay away because they do not want to close the door towards Kabul. It also looks as if the Haqqani network is not as strongly entrenched in the Southeastern population as the Taleban are in parts of Greater Kandahar. If violence is supposed to be lowered considerably through talks, it would make more sense to tackle the largest part of the insurgency first: Mulla Omar’s Taleban.
What the US think about all this, remains opaque. It ‘has become increasingly publicly doubtful of the concept of reconciling with high-level insurgent leaders’ writes Nick Schifrin of the ABC (see here). CIA director Leon Panetta just stated in Washington:
‘We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society […]. We’ve seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful’ (ABC again).
However, Admiral Mike Mullen the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – the highest US military – stated two days ago that ‘[i]t’s hard to rule out that political entities who are now the enemy might be a part of’ a ‘political solution’ in Afghanistan (Shaun Waterman, ‘Mullen: Omar could be part of Afghan settlement’, Washington Times, 29 June 2010).
I still believe that the general line remains what it was under McChrystal: let’s try to weaken the Taleban militarily with the ‘surge’ and then we see. Whether this will lead to anything than more bloodshed, is doubtful. Concerning is also that Gen. David Petraeus apparently plans to revise his predecessor McChrystal’s softer rules on the use of ‘close air support’ and long-range artillery, meant to reduce the number of Afghan civilian casualties. Back to square one?
(1) ‘Haqqani network’ is a terminus technicus, not an organisational name. Officially, it is part of the Taleban movement. Serajuddin Haqqani just had stated this in an interview with a Jihadist website (see ‘Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum Q&A with Sirajuddin Haqqani’, English translation released on 11 June 2010 by NEFA Foundation). He also confirmed that he, as the only one from South-Eastern Afghanistan (Loya Paktia) sat on the Taleban’s Leadership Council, vulgo Quetta Shura. The network’s ‘spiritual’ leader is Serajuddin’s father Jalaluddin Haqqani who, due to old age and illness, has handed over day-to-day affairs of the network to his son. Haqqani apparently attacked Afghan government officials (the wuluswal of Teri Mangal and entourage) earlier than anyone else in the movement – when exactly, however, is unclear, either in the last years of King Zaher Shah’s or in the early Daud years, i.e. sometime between 1971 and 1973. Afterwards, he escaped to Pakistan, got into contact with the ISI and turned one of its most valuable assets, to the day. Due to these connections, and also because the ‘network’ – a former anti-Soviet mujahedin front linked to Hezb-e Islami (Khales) – is much older than the Taleban movement, it has maintained a rather autonomous position within the insurgency. The structures and modus operandi in their area of operations, i.e. the Southeast, differs considerably from those of the mainstream Southern Taleban. (I have extensively describes this in earlier publications (2)). Both the US and the Kabul government have repeatedly pointed to the Haqqani network as the organizers of high-publicity terrorist attacks on targets in the capital Kabul.
(2) The Other Side: Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency: Causes, Actors – and Approaches to Talks, AAN Thematic Report 1/2009, read here; ‘Loya Paktia’s Insurgency: The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity in the Taliban Universe’, in: Antonio Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, London 2009.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020