Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Conflict going East, conflict going on

Fabrizio Foschini 9 min

The US-led Coalition has declared that its troops’ new strategic focus will be on eastern Afghanistan, after its claims of gains made in southern Afghanistan last year. Although the bad security situation in the East is not new, the recent emphasis on it may be mainly linked to the increased interest (and concern) of the Coalition with regard to the insurgent groups active there, as it is the case with the Haqqani network in Loya Paktia and the neighbouring provinces, argues AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini.

While packing up at the end of his ultimately brief sojourn in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus on 4 July 2011 discussed where he thought the conflict was going. Although it was couched in cautious military language, by the time it was relayed through the media, it sounded like a prophecy: the conflict is moving east(*).

The way some outlets reported on the issue, gave the impression that not only the conflict had moved, but that also the Taleban themselves had been cleared out of southern Afghanistan by the 2010 offensives in Helmand and Kandahar, and were relocating hundreds of kilometres north-eastward. This impression was helped on its way by some in the military: ‘The kinetic battle is pushing insurgents out of Afghanistan,’ a US army captain told AFP(**), ‘and they are moving east to key exit points. Khost has been a traditional embarkation point for insurgents from Pakistan, so the fight here will pick up.’ (read the whole article here). But the idea of the same Taleban climbing in through the window (Khost) after having been kicked out of the door (Helmand & Kandahar) is misleading.

It is difficult to argue seriously that the Taleban have been physically removed from the south. Mainly, the coalition refer to a handful – of many more – critical districts: Arghandab, Maiwand, Zherai in Kandahar as well as Marja and Sangin in Helmand. Moreover, the conflict in the south-east and east has been entrenched for several years (in some areas it started at a very  early stage, shortly after the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001). Its main protagonists have been sub-networks of the Taleban that are only – or mainly active – in those particular regions. It is probably only because the situation is now getting so bad that it has become impossible to ignore, that the area has been recognized as the priority by the ISAF command.

The porous border with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan still constitutes one of the insurgents’ major assets, even after the Pakistani army has been reluctantly making inroads into some of the areas (for instance in South Waziristan, Bajaur and Mohmand in the past years, and in Kurram at present – however without significantly reducing cross-border movement of insurgents in any of these areas).

The aggressive attitude by insurgents has led the situation in the east and south-east to slowly but steadily grow worse. This development is coupled with the inability of the Afghan government to extend its presence among rural communities, some of which were antagonized at an early stage due to targeting by foreign troops and abuses by local officers. Currently, the whole arc following the border with Pakistani FATA shows similar signs of an increased volatility, with its farthest ends – Paktika and Nuristan – representing the worst-case scenarios: those of insurgents potentially threatening to take over the entire province.

So what measures are being  considered by the ISAF command to counter this threat, in the light of the planned reduction of the foreign troops’ presence and the hoped-for de-escalation of the conflict in view of a peace deal? Let’s turn again to former commander in chief Petraeus: ‘There could be some small [Coalition] forces that will move, but this is about shifting helicopters – lift and attack. It’s about shifting close-air support. It’s about shifting, above all, intelligence, surveillance and recognizance [sic] assets’ (for how helicopter strikes affect civilian casualties read our previous blog here).

Petraeus’s emphasis on greater close-air support, rather than ground troops, may be a tactical response to increased instances of insurgent massing in the east. Local Taleban have employed larger and larger groups of fighters, including in areas that were previously mainly affected by armed groups of small or medium size. This has also brought a change in their possible range of objectives.

In Loya Paktia, for example, the standard Haqqani modus operandi, until a few years ago, was to avoid establishing permanent big fronts of fighters. They rather preferred to stage periodic, cross-border raids, infiltrating from their sanctuaries in Waziristan, while keeping small cells of facilitators and affiliates on the ground. Recently, hundreds of fighters have been fielded in single operations, even in areas far removed from the border. Evidence also suggests that they have (re)established hidden facilities and bunker complexes capable of hosting large numbers of operatives. In May 2011, for example, a group of more than one hundred insurgents attacked a construction company site in Waza Zadran, Paktia province, far outgunning the company’s security detail, which numbered only several dozen of men.

Such amassing leaves fighters more vulnerable to air attack. Already in October 2010, during an attack on security outposts in Barmal district of Paktika, airstrikes had caused up to 30 losses to a larger attack forces of the insurgents (see here). More recently, on 21-22 July 2011, an unspecified number of casualties, between 80 and 100, were inflicted on insurgents in Sar Hawza district of Paktika province, during a two-day air and ground operation. The overall number of insurgents present in the area must have been even higher than that.

The question is why Haqqani commanders in Paktika choose such tactics, given that they already virtually control most of the territory outside the district centres in the province. Locals believe that the concentration of such large numbers of insurgents at less than 25 kilometres from the provincial capital Sharana indicates that they are seeking to make a show of force. Insurgents tried to attack Sharana as early as August 2007; it seems now their chances of success have only increased. Although the Taleban will not be able to occupy and hold any  place inside Afghanistan that the US will want to retake, be it a medium-sized city or a shepherd’s hut, but briefly occupying a provincial capital, and perhaps razing to the ground its government buildings as a warning, would send a powerful message. Haqqani fighters have done this in the past with several district centres throughout Loya Paktia and may be aiming at bigger objectives now.

A parallel increase in size can also be noticed in a different kind of insurgent attacks considered the domain of the Haqqani network: suicide commando operations against high profile targets inside cities. Starting with the attack at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on 29 June 2011 and reaching the raid in Tirinkot on 25 July 2011, once skimpy suicide groups have been beefed up to impressive sizes (nine bombers in the first case, seven in the second). The Haqqanis, to apply the US military-diplomatic jargon to the other side, have apparently decided to go for a ‘short and heavy’ approach where, according to guerrilla rules, they could have gone for ‘light and long’.

A reason to do this, given the human and financial costs, could be more diplomatic rather than purely military. The Haqqanis may be trying to assert their political weight, among others, in view of future political settlements.

During the last months there has been an increasing emphasis in the Western media on the Haqqani network as possibly the coalition’s ‘worst enemy’. This is also seen in the recent appearance of several reports on the group by strategic studies centres (links here and here).

As its long lasting links with al-Qaeda and other international jihadist groups, as well as with the ISI, are investigated and exposed, the Haqqani network increasingly becomes a ‘diabolic entity’ in the eyes of the US. On the other hand it appears more and more openly sponsored by Pakistan, through media narratives and probably diplomatic efforts, as an interlocutor that cannot be set aside if Afghanistan is to have a peaceful future. Any announcement that the Haqqani network, with its history of brutal attacks inside cities and its obvious links to the ISI, had been engaged in talks would obviously turn into a sensitive political issue. Afghans from different walks of life already criticize the government’s position as too prone to Pakistani diktats and too soft on the Taleban, not just with regard to peace talks. The US themselves, although supportive of any peace talks that would bring some results in the short-term, have until now excluded the Haqqanis from the list of the ‘guys they may want to talk to’ (read here). But what of the Haqqanis themselves?(***)

An informed Afghan source pointed to the fact that Serajuddin (the real political head of the family, now that Jalaluddin has turned into yet another record of longevity among mujahed leaders) may be interested in peace talks if a complete withdrawal of foreign troops (‘even a gradual one’) was agreed upon and the current ‘corrupt’ order was replaced by another to be chosen by the Afghan people ‘freely’ (it is not clear if this means through some form of elections), but that he has not been asked until now. If true, the increased Haqqani military activity could be an effort to step into the limelight and receive recognition as a major actor. It could be even considered a parallel strategy to the Coalition’s will to strike the insurgents first to force them to the peace table. However, the Haqqanis have never declared openly any interest for talks.

The Haqqani family, and the network around it, has a long history of survival. They have benefited politically from the conflict situation in Loya Paktia and the neighbouring FATA more than anybody else in the last thirty years. They have not only consolidated their hegemonic role among the insurgency of Loya Paktia, but have managed to expand their presence into Logar, Wardak, Kabul and parts of Nangrahar and even Kapisa. Although consisting mainly of a relatively narrow and localized core leadership, they enjoy wide respect and economic support among regional and international islamist groups as local facilitators for non-Afghan jihadis from Waziristan and beyond. They are actually becoming the main providers of access to jihad, an increasingly sought after commodity in this region(****). They also seem to have become Pakistan’s ‘best horse’ in Afghanistan, and increasingly in the FATA itself. The Haqqanis have not only survived the collapse of the Taleban Emirate, they have actually made their political fortunes over it.

Furthermore, they retain a high degree of ambiguity as to their political autonomy and ambitions(*****). Would they shy away from any separate participation in peace talks because, as the claim, they are just normal Taleban following the political course set by Mullah Omar? Would they be ready to accept a ceasefire if the alleged Pakistani conditions of a degree of control for its proxies on the border areas, the so-called ‘Pashtun corridor’, are ensured? They could be fanatically committed to an international jihadi terrorist agenda or pragmatically concerned with a mere regional perspective. Or they could just be interested in exploiting the conflict situation and the support they derive from it to enhance their importance in a broad lawless region spanning across Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the end, paralleling a point often made with less self-righteous warlords operating in border areas: what would they have to gain by national reconciliation in either of the two countries?

But there could be something else keeping both the Haqqanis (and the Taleban at large) and the Americans (and the foreigners at large) from reaching the peace table, as both sides seem to believe that they can determine the conditions for talks. The two sides have been feeding too long on their respective propagandas of effectiveness and progress, and of resistance and martyrdom. In reality, neither side has a realistic hope to have things their way, but  both spend a lot of energies in creating narratives that are saying they can.

Many questions remain. Will we reach the point where another ‘Marja’ success-story is announced triumphantly, this time in the east? Will, let’s say, Jalalabad become a deadly city like Kandahar, due to the omnipresent Taleban violence? Or, if Petraeus’s words about an increase in close-air support and intelligence assets are the key to the new scenario, are we going to witness an early version of Blackwill’s own prophecy of an enduring US air-threat over Taleban controlled areas (see our earlier blog here)?


(*) When NATO talks about the Afghan ‘east’, they talk about the area that is covered by their Regional Command East, i.e. the traditional Eastern region (Nangrahar, Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan) and the South-eastern region (Loya Paktia’s three provinces and Ghazni).

(**) Veteran Gen. Rodriguez put it in a plainer way stating that ‘the coming troop movements reflect the gains made in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. and Afghan forces have pushed the Taliban out of several former strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar’, while according to an unnamed US official ‘[a]ny new troops sent to eastern Afghanistan will take part in interdiction efforts along the border or escalate the U.S.-led offensive against the Haqqani network.’ (read the whole article here)

(***) See an earlier discussion of this by former UN South-eastern region chief Tom Gregg here. Almost a year ago, Gregg emphasised the point to talk to the Haqqanis as long as Jalaluddin still has some influence and Serajuddin has not fully taken over (but is this still the case?), arguing that Haqqani the elder, as a former mujahedin commander, still is better linked to communities inside Afghanistan while his son might have been more influenced by outside (Wahhabi) ideology; he was educated in Saudi Arabia. (Another source told AAN members years ago that Jalaluddin does not have a political programme beyond vague concepts of an Islamic order)

(****) Among the hundred-or-so high death toll of the Paktika operation in late July 2011, only 35 were recognized as Afghans. Mass movement of Pakistani citizens into Afghanistan to wage jihad, especially on the Waziristan border, is not a new or a disputed phenomenon. The Haqqani network can count on the cooperation of several militant outfits there, focusing more and more on the Afghan side of the border after a significant weakening of the rebellious Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP). The reported decision of the so-called pro-government Taleban groups (like Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s and Mullah Nazir’s) not to oppose an eventual army operation in North Waziristan, together with their declaration that suicide attacks inside Pakistan are haram, point towards a renewed focus on the jihad in Afghanistan. Increased drone strikes and radicalized political relations between the US and Pakistan contribute to the trends of participation in the Afghan conflict among sections of the Pakistani youth, who may wish to bring the fight to the US military.

(*****) This ambiguity is best illustrated by the rumour in May 2011 that Mulla Omar had been killed by the Haqqanis – at the ISI’s request – when re-locating from Quetta to Waziristan. The fact that many reasonable people believed this feuilleton-styled development to be possible shows the depth of that ambiguity.


Haqqani Security US


Fabrizio Foschini

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