By Amir Mir
ISLAMABAD – The gradually warming Pakistan-United States ties have suddenly turned sour in the aftermath of the September 13 brazen terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Kabul, which senior American military and government officials have squarely blamed on the North Waziristan-based Haqqani militant network, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani.
As Washington and Islamabad struggle to redefine their relationship in the aftermath of a series of testing developments this year, beginning with the January 27 arrest of an undercover US Central Intelligence Agency agent from Lahore, followed by the May 2 killing of the fugitive al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a US military raid in Abbottabad, the Kabul attack has cast serious doubts on the American claims of progress in the “war against terror”.
This has prompted US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to warn that the United States could do everything it could to defend American forces from the Pakistan-based Haqqani militants staging attacks in Afghanistan, including operations inside Pakistan.
Panetta’s warning was followed by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s decision to cancel his planned trip to the United States that was scheduled for September 16.
On the face of it, he called off the visit because “he personally wanted to supervise ongoing relief efforts in flood-hit areas of Sindh province”. However, there are clear indications that strained relations between the two countries led to the move; he was to address a United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
The main reason for calling off the visit was US President Barack Obama’s refusal to meet Gilani on the sidelines of the UN session. The Pakistan Embassy in Washington had tried hard to arrange a meeting. Panetta’s fulminations too are said to have persuaded Gilani that this was not the best time to go.
A few hours after calling off his US visit, Gilani said on September 17: “Now it’s time that the United States should do more.” This was in response to the US’s lack of satisfaction with efforts by Pakistan in their fight against the Taliban and their demand that his government should do more. Gilani said Pakistan had already contributed enormously to the fight against terrorism and stressed that the US should “do more” instead.
The US Embassy assault in Kabul that kept the heavily guarded city center under siege for almost 20 hours and literally turned it into a battle zone was the longest sustained incident in the capital since the launching of the war against the Taliban a decade ago in October 2001.
Fifteen people were killed and six foreign troops wounded in the assault. The Taliban attackers managed to get hold of a high-rise building site that towers over the US Embassy and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Kabul, firing rockets and spraying gunfire well inside the highly-secured diplomatic zone, which by and large houses foreign embassies and military headquarters.
The third major terrorist attack in Kabul by the Taliban since June 2011 raises questions about the ability of the Afghan security forces that are supposed to take over responsibility from foreign troops. The timing of the Kabul attack suggests that it was also aimed at improving the bargaining position of the Afghan Taliban led by their amir, Mullah Omar. The attack also raises questions about secret reconciliation efforts being made by the Americans to strike a deal with the Afghan Taliban, who have already claimed responsibility for the September 13 US Embassy assault.
While blaming the Haqqani network – which is loosely associated with the Afghan Taliban – for the assault, Afghan Interior Minister Bismillah Mohmmadi claimed that mobile telephones used by the six attackers who fought off Western and Afghan forces for almost a full day showed they were in touch with people outside the country.
“The evidence we have received shows they were communicating and were led from outside Afghanistan,” said Mohmmadi in a video released to journalists by his ministry. He did not identify the country involved, but US ambassador Ryan Crocker and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John R Allen, said they believed the attack was launched by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
Earlier, Afghanistan’s National Intelligence Directorate (NDS) had claimed following the June 28 terrorist attack targeting the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that it was also carried out by militants of the Haqqani network with the help of their handlers in Pakistan.
As per the NDS claim, in an intercepted phone call, Badruddin Haqqani, a top leader of the terror network, was heard directing one of the fighters and laughing during the hotel attack that killed 11 civilians and two policemen as well as nine members of the attacking team. Badruddin is an operational commander in the Haqqani network who also sits on the Taliban’s Miram Shah shura (council).
Named after its founding leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqani network is an Afghan militant group that is based out of North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
The network has been active mainly in the east of Afghanistan in Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Ghazni Wardak and even Kabul provinces.
Although it is a separate militant group, it pledges allegiance to Mullah Omar and has a history of links to the Pakistani intelligence establishment since the days of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, now in his sixties, is a former anti-Soviet resistance commander known for his ruthless effectiveness as a fighter. His ties to Pakistan, and his base in the Miram Shah area of North Waziristan, go as far back as his exile during the government of Sardar Daud in the early 1970s.
He was initially among the many militant leaders who formed the Hizb-e-Islami. But when the Hizb fractured in the late 1970s, Haqqani followed Maulvi Yunis Khalis rather than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and became one of the most important commanders in the Hizb-e Islami (Khalis), or HIK.
A battle-tested leader
When Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979, like many Afghan leaders, Jalaluddin took his family and fighters to Pakistan and settled in North Waziristan, which borders his native Khost province.
He subsequently received significant support from the American Central Intelligence Agency and from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and built up a sizable and competent anti-Soviet militia force by the mid-1980s.
The current ties between the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban date back to the days of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan led by Mullah Omar. The Taliban seized power in 1996 and were ousted by the US-led invasion in late 2001.
As Jalaluddin has aged, his elder son Sirajuddin has taken over the responsibility of carrying out cross-border operations in Afghanistan. Sirajuddin has eclipsed his father in power and influence and he rivals more senior leaders for leadership of the Taliban. In many ways, he is smarter and more respected than far more senior Taliban leaders.
According to US military commanders, the Haqqani network is the most resilient in Afghanistan and one of the biggest threats to the US-led forces.
Following WikiLeaks’ July 2010 publication of 75,000 classified documents, it was revealed that Sirajuddin Haqqani was in tier one of the International Security Assistance Force’s Joint Prioritized Effects List – its “kill or capture” list.
Therefore, the Americans have targeted the Haqqani network in North Waziristan extensively in recent years, especially since a suicide bomber killed seven senior CIA officers in the Khost area of Afghanistan on December 31, 2009.
While the Americans treat the Haqqani network as an enemy, there are those in the Pakistani establishment who still consider it as a strategic asset and a possible ally in Afghanistan after the exit of US-led forces.
But the embassy attack in Kabul has deeply annoyed the Americans, prompting key US military officials to once again set off a volley of anti-Pakistan statements by publicly accusing Islamabad of “sleeping with the enemy”.
After the sweet words that followed the recent arrest of senior al-Qaeda leader Younis al-Mauritania from Pakistan, senior American officials have turned their guns on Pakistan and warned that the US would “do everything it can” to defend American forces from Haqqani militants.
Clearly embarrassed by the Taliban attack, Panetta, a former CIA chief, accused Pakistan on September 15 of not curtailing the Haqqani network. He said his country’s response would show Pakistan that the US meant business. “Time and again we have urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over these kinds of attacks from the Haqqanis. And we have made very little progress in that area. I think the message the Pakistanis need to know is: we are going to do everything we can to defend our forces.”
Panetta said he was concerned about the Haqqanis’ ability to attack American troops and then escape back into what is a safe haven in Pakistan, “which is unacceptable”.
Panetta has long pressed Islamabad to go after the Haqqanis. “I’m not going to talk about how we’re going to respond. I will just let you know that we are not going to allow these kinds of attacks to go on. These kinds of attacks – sporadic attacks and assassination attempts – are more a reflection of the fact that they are losing their ability to be able to attack our forces on a broader scale.” Asked whether the Kabul attack raised concerns about the Afghans’ ability to take over their own security, Panetta said that overall their response was good.
On September 16, it was the turn of the US ambassador to Islamabad, Cameron Munter, to accuse Pakistan of having ties with the Haqqani network, saying the Kabul attack was the work of the same network. Munter told Radio Pakistan, “There is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistan government. This is something that must stop.”
Munter’s remarks clearly endorsed Panetta’s threat that the US could take direct military action against the Haqqani network with or without Pakistan’s support, making a Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman state, “Any unilateral action on Pakistan’s soil will have disastrous ramifications for ties between Islamabad and Washington.”
The next one to warn Pakistan was John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser: “The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to hot battlefields like Afghanistan. We reserve the right to take unilateral action,” he said on September 17.
Three different statements, but the message to Islamabad is clear: take action against the Haqqani network or the US will do it unilaterally.
On the other hand, while responding to these warnings, the Foreign Office spokesman in Islamabad said:
Pakistan is prepared to continue cooperating with the United States in countering terrorism but, at the same time, continuous criticism, like the recent remarks of the US defense secretary are not in line with the cooperation the two countries have agreed to maintain in counter-terrorism.
Washington should be more concerned about the safe havens and sanctuaries inside Afghanistan from where Pakistanis had been attacked. Terrorism and militancy are complex issues and require close cooperation among all concerned. Pakistan and the United States have cooperated in countering terrorism.
But Pakistan’s cooperation is premised on respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and entails joint actions. We have raised the issue of safe havens and sanctuaries on the other side of the border in Afghanistan from where militants have launched attacks against our border posts and villages, killing many innocent Pakistani civilians and destroying schools and homes.
During his subsequent meeting with the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, in Spain on the sidelines of a NATO conference, Pakistani army Chief General Kiani reportedly refused to give any commitment to his American counterpart with regard to military action against the Haqqani network.
According to Pakistani media reports, the issue was raised by Mullen. But Kiani told him that the Pakistan army was not in a position to give any time frame for carrying out a military operation in the restive North Waziristan. While citing “capacity constraints”, Kiani told Mullen that going after the Haqqani network at this stage would have serious repercussions for Pakistan.
In a speech to NATO chiefs, Kiani virtually ruled out any imminent full-scale action against the Haqqani network. “The army chief reiterated the resolve and commitment of Pakistan in the struggle against terrorism while underlining Pakistan’s sovereign right to formulate policy in accordance with its national interests and the wishes of the Pakistani people,” an official statement issued by the military said of Kiani’s speech.
Meanwhile, Pakistani media have taken contradictory positions on the US demand on Islamabad to act against the Haqqani network. The English daily The Express Tribune said in its September 17 editorial titled Attack in Kabul and beyond:
What Leon Panetta doesn’t seem to realize is that there is a rather glaring contradiction at the heart of the American policy in Afghanistan. They are constantly urging Pakistan to do more to tackle the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, even going so far as to demand military action in North Waziristan; while, at the same time, they are negotiating with the Taliban themselves as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In an ideal world, Pakistan would be able and willing to take on and destroy the Haqqani network but right now they have no incentive to do so. The US and Pakistan are involved in a crisis of mutual trust in which Pakistan is seen as showing defiance. Given that the US has already announced the date from when they begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the Pakistan military is trying to take steps to ensure that they maintain their influence there. Propping up the Haqqani network to serve our interests in Afghanistan is one such measure. Pakistan fears India will be the dominant regional power in Afghanistan after the Americans leave, and thus sees no qualms in using the Haqqani network as its proxy.
On the other hand, another English daily, The News, said in a September 17 editorial titled Panetta’s Warning:
Nobody on this side of the fence has been able to credibly deny that the Haqqani network has its rear echelons quartered in Pakistan. It may be a piece of Pakistan over which the government has little writ or control, but it is undeniably within Pakistan’s internationally recognized borders.
The Haqqani network is not a de-facto arm of al-Qaeda, nor does it necessarily have common cause with al-Qaeda, but it has linkages with other terrorist groups and the Taliban operating across the borderlands with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s own links with the network, as with so many other groups which are now a liability rather than an asset, hark back to the war against the Russians in Afghanistan … For Pakistan, the Haqqani network is a headache that has become a migraine. Time, perhaps, for medication.
On his part, Sirajuddin Haqqani tried to rescue Pakistan in a rare phone interview from an undisclosed location with Reuters:
The Haqqani group no longer has sanctuaries in Pakistan, and instead felt secure inside Afghanistan. Gone are the days when we were hiding in the mountains along the Pak-Afghan border. Now we consider ourselves more secure in Afghanistan besides the Afghan people. Senior military and police officials are with us. There are sincere people in the Afghan government who are loyal to the Taliban as they know that our goal is the liberation of our homeland from the clutches of occupying forces.
Asked if the Haqqani network was behind the Kabul assault, Sirajuddin said:
For some reasons, I would not like to claim that fighters of our group had carried out the attack on the US Embassy and the NATO headquarters. Our central leadership, particularly senior members of the shura, suggested I should keep quiet in future if the US and its allies suffer in future.
Asked whether there were 10,000 Haqqani fighters as some media reports have suggested, Sirajuddin laughed and said: “That figure is actually less than the actual number.”
To another question, Sirajuddin said his group would take part in peace talks with the Kabul government and the United States only if the Taliban did. He said the group had rejected several peace gestures from the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government in the past because they wanted to create divisions between militant groups.
“They offered us very, very important positions but we rejected [them] and told them they would not succeed in their nefarious designs. They wanted to divide us and any further efforts to do so will also fail,” said Sirajuddin, who carries head money of US$5 million, announced by the US which has already tagged him as a specially designated global terrorist.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.
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