Why Pakistan supports the Haqqanis: Fear for its own security

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 28, 2011 

ISLAMABAD — To American officials, the Haqqani network is a criminal syndicate with al Qaida and Taliban ties that is frequently responsible for deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan must sever its ties or risk being branded a supporter of terrorism.

To Pakistan, however, the picture is much more complex. Pakistani support for the Haqqanis is tied to Islamabad's fears for its own future security, and Pakistan is unlikely to surrender that support no matter how much pressure the United States applies, analysts here say.

The gulf between those views promises continued tension between the two supposed allies. For many in Pakistan, Jalaluddin Haqqani is a veteran Afghan jihadist who fought valiantly to free his country from Soviet occupation; it is the U.S., they believe, that is the illegitimate force in Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week that Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, had helped Haqqani gunmen launch an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He called the Haqqanis a "veritable arm" of the ISI.

But analysts here say the relationship between the Haqqani network and the ISI is more distant and complicated than portrayed by U.S. officials. Understanding that relationship, and the reason it exists, is critical if whatever relationship remains between Islamabad and Washington is to be preserved.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is completing a review of whether the Haqqani network should be designated a terrorist organization, as many in Washington are advocating. Such a designation could complicate relations with Pakistan, which could become subject to sanctions for supporting a terrorist organization. Clinton, however, did not say how soon a decision would come.

"It is important to realize that while it is not always easy, the United States and Pakistan have vital strategic interests that converge in the fight against terrorism," Clinton said.

At the root of the Pakistani support for the Haqqanis is the country's long rivalry with its archenemy, India. Pakistan thinks that the Afghan regime that the U.S. has backed since 2001 contains elements that are dangerously close to India. Haqqani and the Taliban are important counterweights to that, analysts here say.

Washington says that the Haqqani network is based in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area, which runs along the Afghan border. The Haqqanis have compounds in the district capital, Miranshah, as well as other infrastructure, according to U.S. officials.

But while the Haqqanis certainly are present in North Waziristan, Jalaluddin Haqqani's 30-year history of fighting against foreign armies, first the Soviet Union and now the United States, means that he is respected in Pakistan's tribal belt and across the border in Afghanistan as a "true mujahid" (holy warrior), says Saifullah Mahsud, executive director of the FATA Research Centre, an independent think tank in Islamabad.

"We cooperate with the Haqqanis because they are our long-term allies and our interests coincide in Afghanistan," said Mahsud. "We see them as important stakeholders in any future Afghan dispensation, and it's too late for us to find new trustworthy friends there."

Pakistan officially insists that the Haqqani network is based entirely in Afghanistan, as does the group itself. Washington blames the Haqqanis for a series of attacks against Western targets in Afghanistan, including a 20-hour assault in Kabul this month that tried to strike the U.S. Embassy.

The Haqqani network is allied to the Taliban and says it works under its ultimate authority, though it is operationally independent. While the Taliban's strength is in the south of Afghanistan, especially the province of Kandahar, where it was founded, the Haqqani network is entrenched in the east of the country, particularly the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. From the east, the Haqqani network is within easy striking range of Kabul, and it has the military capacity for highly ambitious attacks, which makes the group arguably an even bigger threat to the Afghan government than the Taliban.

While it may be difficult for Americans, and many ordinary Pakistanis, to understand why the country's military believes jihadist groups lie at the center of its security strategy, analysts say Pakistan's armed forces have a 30-year history of working with Islamic militants — supported by the CIA in the 1980s, when the militants' target was the Soviet Union.

Afghanistan's ethnic mix also drives the thinking of Pakistan's generals.

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state, with the Pashtun population as its biggest constituency. The Taliban and Haqqani also are predominantly Pashtun, which is also one of Pakistan's major ethnic groups. Pakistan's military thinks that a hostile regime in Afghanistan would threaten it with a possible war on two fronts, with traditional enemy India to the east and Afghanistan to the west, so backing Pashtun forces are its best insurance policy.

Afghanistan's other ethnic groups, such as Uzbeks and Tajiks, are associated with the former "Northern Alliance," which Pakistan believes to be in the pay of India and to have dominated Kabul since 2001, though President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun.

"The policy is India-centric. The fear is a two-front war," said Asad Munir, a retired brigadier who had served as the ISI chief in the tribal area. "Pakistan wants a government that is dominated by Pashtuns, but not an extremist government."

Pakistan's suspicions of the U.S. have been fueled by the fact that Washington has cut Islamabad out of tentative negotiations it has held with representatives of the insurgent leadership, including talks this year in Qatar and Germany with a man considered close to Taliban founder Mullah Omar and reportedly also to Ibrahim Haqqani, brother of Jalaluddin.

"America has started a reconciliation process in Afghanistan but they want Pakistan to fight," said Aftab Sherpao, a former Pakistani interior minister. "They want peace over there and war here."

Analysts say there is little the United States can do to wean Pakistan from its ties to the Haqqani network.

Pakistan receives around $3.5 billion a year in civilian and military aid from the United States. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they do not want to repeat the 1990s experience of cutting off assistance and slapping sanctions on Pakistan, which did not work.

A U.S. offensive on Pakistani soil against the Haqqani network also is not likely to work. Such an offensive would certainly push public opinion in a dangerously radical direction. Over half the supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan.

Pakistan is also not likely to launch an armed assault on North Waziristan, where either army would be greeted by a formidable and motley collection of thousands of jihadists.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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