Americans Are Clueless About Handling the Haqqani Clan

By Mark Mazzetti, Scott Shane andAlissa J. Rubin/ NYT

The Haqqani clan are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.

They safeguard their mountainous turf by planting deadly roadside bombs and shelling remote American military bases. And they are accused by American officials of being guns for hire: a proxy force used by the ISI to carry out grisly, high-profile attacks inKabuland throughout the country.

The Haqqani network is led by a wizened militant named Jalaluddin Haqqani who has allied himself over the years with the CIA, Saudi Arabia’s spy service and Osama bin Laden — the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan. In the latest of a series of ever bolder strikes, the group staged a daylong assault on the US Embassy inKabul.

According to two American officials, cellphones used by the attackers made calls to suspected ISI operatives before the attack, although top Pakistani officials deny their government played any role.

But even as the Americans pledge revenge against the Haqqanis, and even amid a new debate in the Obama administration about how to blunt the group’s power, there is a growing belief that it could be too late. To many frustrated officials, they represent a missed opportunity with haunting consequences.

Responsible for hundreds of American deaths, the Haqqanis probably will outlast the US troops inAfghanistanand command large swaths of territory there once the shooting stops.

American military officers, who have spent years urging Washington to take action against the Haqqanis, express anger that the Obama administration has still not put the group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations out of concern that such a move would scuttle any chances that the group might make peace with Afghanistan’s government.

“Whoever is in power in Kabul will have to make a deal with the Haqqanis,” said Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer who served inPakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. “It won’t be us. We’re going to leave, and those guys know it.”

When their threat was less urgent, the Haqqanis — estimated at 5,000 to 15,000 fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan — were not a top priority for the Americans. But even then theUnited States also had little leverage against them. The Haqqanis have expanded their reach and numbers as top American officials have tried repeatedly over the last decade to berate and cajole officials in Pakistan to cut ties to a group it considers essential for its own security, all with little effect.

“Some have become convinced that after 10 years, it’s a bridge too far to try to changePakistan’s strategic calculus,” said Col. Bob Cassidy, who recently returned fromKabulafter serving as a top aide to Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, a senior American commander inAfghanistan.

Now largely run by two of Mr. Haqqani’s sons, who experts say are even more committed Islamists than their father, the network is in a position of strength as the US tries to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan before pulling its troops from the country.

In recent days, top Haqqani network leaders have indicated that they are willing to negotiate, but on their own terms. The group maintains close ties to the Taliban, but often works independently, and some intelligence officials see Haqqani operations like the American Embassy attack this month as a very public message from the group that it will not be cut out of any grand bargain.

One former American intelligence official, who worked with the Haqqani family in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, said he would not be surprised if the US again found itself relying on the clan.

Militia and Ministate

With a combination of guns and muscle, the Haqqani network has built a sprawling enterprise on both sides of a border that barely exists.

The Haqqanis are Afghan members of the Zadran tribe, but it is in the town of Miram Shah in Pakistan’s tribal areas where they have set up a ministate with courts, tax offices and radical madrasa schools producing a ready supply of fighters. They secretly run a network of front companies throughout Pakistan selling cars and real estate, and have been tied to at least two factories churning out the ammonium nitrate used to build roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

American intelligence officials believe that a steady flow of money from wealthy people in theGulf stateshelps sustain the Haqqanis, and that they further line their pockets with extortion and smuggling operations throughout easternAfghanistan, focused in the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. Chromite smuggling has been a particularly lucrative business, as has been hauling lumber fromAfghanistan’s eastern forests intoPakistan.

They are also in the kidnapping business, with a mix of pecuniary and ideological motives. In May, the group released the latest of a series of videos showing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American infantryman held by the network since June 2009, with a Haqqani official. David Rohde, then a reporter for The New York Times, was held hostage by Haqqani operatives from November 2008 to June 2009.

Over the past five years, with relatively few American troops operating in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqanis have run what is in effect a protection racket for construction firms — meaning that American taxpayers are helping to finance the enemy network.

Maulavi Sardar Zadran, a former Haqqani commander, calls this extortion “the most important source of funding for the Haqqanis,” and points out that a multi year road project linking Khost to Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan was rarely attacked by insurgent forces because a Haqqani commander was its paid protector.

“The Haqqanis know that the contractors make thousands and millions of dollars, so these contractors are good sources of income for them”.

Other road projects in the region have been under constant assault. According to an authoritative report written by Jeffrey A. Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War, Haqqani militants “repeatedly targeted road construction projects which, if completed, would provide greater freedom of movement for Afghan and coalition forces.”

But the group is not just a two-bit mafia enriching itself with shakedown schemes. It is an organized militia using high-profile terrorist attacks on hotels, embassies and other targets to advance its agenda to become a power broker in a future political settlement. And, sometimes, the agenda of its patrons from the ISI.

Last month, Afghanistan’s National Intelligence Directorate released recordings of phone calls intercepted during the June 28 attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. In the exchanges, Haqqani network leaders in Pakistan instruct their operatives in the hotel to shoot the locks off rooms, throw in grenades and make sure no one escapes.

Later, as a fire blazes, the recordings capture the voice of Badruddin Haqqani, one of Jalaluddin’s sons, who the State Department says is in charge of kidnappings for the network.

On the tape, Mr. Haqqani asks: “How is the fire?”

A militant named Omar replies: “It’s a big fire, and the smoke is blinding me.” Omar says he will not be able to move away from the fire, and Mr. Haqqani asks if he has bullets.

“Yes, I have a lot of ammunition,” Omar says. “God willing, I’m very relaxed, lying on this mattress, waiting for them.”

Mr. Haqqani laughs and says: “God will give you victory.” More than a dozen people were killed in the attack, which American officials say they think was carried out with some ISI help.

A NATO officer who tracks Haqqani activities in southeastern Afghanistan gave a blunt assessment of the Haqqanis’ brutal ways of intimidation, saying: “They will execute you at a checkpoint, or stop you and go through your phone. And, if they find you’re connected to the government, you’ll turn up in the morgue. And that sends a message.”

According to a senior American military official, cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis intoAfghanistanhave increased more than fivefold this year over the same period a year ago, and roadside bomb attacks are up 20 percent compared with last year.

For years, American officials have urgedPakistanto move against the Haqqanis’ base of operations inNorth Waziristan. They typically are rebuffed by military and intelligence officials in Islamabad, who say that Pakistan’s military is overstretched from operations elsewhere in the tribal areas and is not ready for an offensive against the Haqqanis.

As a result, the UShas fallen back on a familiar strategy: missiles fired from armed drones operated by the CIA. But because the Haqqani network’s leaders are thought to be hiding in populated towns like Miram Shah, where the C.I.A. is hesitant to carry out drone strikes, American officials said that the campaign has had only limited success against the group’s leadership.

1980s Allies

A quarter-century ago, the Haqqani fighters were not the targets of C.I.A. missiles. They were the ones shooting C.I.A.-supplied missiles, the shoulder-fired Stingers that would devastate Soviet air power over Afghanistan.

Jalaluddin Haqqani was in temporary alliance with theUSagainst its greater adversary, the Soviet Union, just as his network today is allied with a Pakistan that seesAfghanistanas a critical buffer against its greater adversary,India. His clan’s ruthlessness and fervent Islam were seen then as marks of courage and faith on the part of men Ronald Reagan called freedom fighters.

Representative Charlie Wilson, the late Texas Democrat who made the mujahedeen his cause, called the elder Mr. Haqqani “goodness personified.”

American intelligence officers who worked directly with Mr. Haqqani had a somewhat less starry-eyed view. “He was always a wild-eyed guy,” said the former American intelligence official who worked with the Haqqanis. “But we weren’t talking about getting these guys scholarships to Harvard or M.I.T. He was the scourge of the Soviets.”

The Haqqani fighters would roll boulders down mountains to block passing Soviet convoys, said the official, who requested anonymity because he remains a consultant for the government. “Then they would sit up in the hills and pick the Russians off all afternoon,” he said.

Jalaluddin Haqqani’s fierce temperament was matched by his devotion to the rules of Islam, the official said. Shot in the knee one time during the daytime fast of Ramadan, Mr. Haqqani had medics dig the bullet out without anesthesia rather than violate a religious tenet by swallowing pain medication, the official said. There is little doubt in Afghanistan that if the family were to gain power, it would institute strict Islamic rule.

For Americans who worked with them in the 1980s, the fact that the Haqqanis are now fighting their former American allies is no shock. The Russians were the foreign occupiers before; now the Americans are.

“The Haqqanis have always been the warlords of that part of the country,” said Mr. Sageman, the former C.I.A. officer. “They always will be.”

Limited U.S. Options

On Feb. 19, 2009, the day before Gen. Kayani,Pakistan’s new senior military commander, was due inWashingtonfor his first meetings with the Obama administration, the American Embassy in Islamabad sent a classified cable to the State Department.

American officials believed that General Kayani, Pakistan’s onetime spymaster, had for years overseen Pakistan’s covert support for militant groups like the Haqqani network, and the cable offered blunt advice about the coming talks.

“The single biggest message Kayani should hear in Washington is that this support must end,” said the cable, written by Ambassador Anne W. Patterson.

In the 30 months since, few in Washington believe that Pakistan’s support of armed militia groups has diminished. American officials who were once optimistic they could change Pakistani behavior through cajoling and large cash payments now accept a sober reality: as long as Pakistan sees its security under threat by India’s far larger army, it will rely on militant groups like the Haqqanis, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba as occasional proxy forces.

The new urgency for a political settlement in Afghanistan has further limitedWashington’s options for fighting the Haqqani network. During high-level discussions last year, Obama administration officials debated listing the group as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” which allows for some assets to be frozen and could dissuade donors from supporting the group. While some military commanders pushed for the designation, the administration ultimately decided that such a move might alienate the Haqqanis and drive them away from future negotiations.

Officials chose to take the more incremental step of naming individual Haqqani leaders as terrorists, including Badruddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Senior American officials said there was once again a fierce debate inside the Obama administration about whether to put the entire group on the terrorist list.

But asWashingtonstruggles to broker an endgame for the Afghan war, there is widespread doubt about whether the Haqqanis will negotiate, and whether their patrons in Islamabad will even let them. After a decade of war, there is a growing sense amongAmerica’s diplomats, soldiers and spies that theUSis getting out ofAfghanistanwithout ever figuring out how a maddeningly complex game is played.

“Is there any formula for Pakistan to agree to stop supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan and instead help broker and be satisfied with a political settlement?” asked Karl W. Eikenberry, who served as both America’s top military commander in Afghanistan and its ambassador to the country.

“We don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.

 

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