With Haqqanis at the Helm, the Taliban Will Grow Even More Extreme

Afghanistan’s newly appointed minister of interior and acting minister of refugees each have $5 million bounties on their head for their involvement with international terrorism. Sirajuddin Haqqani and his uncle, Khalil, are members of the Haqqani network, an Afghan Sunni Islamist militant organization that is functionally part of the Taliban and which the United States designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.

The Haqqani network has long been the most lethal and vicious element of the Taliban, itself a highly violent and rapacious group. Now, with Sirajuddin in a leadership role, the Taliban will inevitably grow more radical over time, quashing any hopes for a “kinder, gentler” Taliban.

The Haqqanis’ rise to power has been long in the making, stretching back to its founding in 1970 by the family’s patriarch, Jalaluddin, a veteran jihadi, favorite of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and longtime associate of terrorist Osama bin Laden. Haqqani founded the group to fight in the anti-Soviet jihad and was a valued CIA asset in the 1980s.

Afghanistan’s newly appointed minister of interior and acting minister of refugees each have $5 million bounties on their head for their involvement with international terrorism. Sirajuddin Haqqani and his uncle, Khalil, are members of the Haqqani network, an Afghan Sunni Islamist militant organization that is functionally part of the Taliban and which the United States designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.

The Haqqani network has long been the most lethal and vicious element of the Taliban, itself a highly violent and rapacious group. Now, with Sirajuddin in a leadership role, the Taliban will inevitably grow more radical over time, quashing any hopes for a “kinder, gentler” Taliban.

The Haqqanis’ rise to power has been long in the making, stretching back to its founding in 1970 by the family’s patriarch, Jalaluddin, a veteran jihadi, favorite of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and longtime associate of terrorist Osama bin Laden. Haqqani founded the group to fight in the anti-Soviet jihad and was a valued CIA asset in the 1980s.

Soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Haqqanis helped the Taliban establish an anti-U.S. insurgency in Afghanistan, largely operating as the Taliban’s Miran Shah Shura, the first of the Taliban’s regional shuras -powerful consultative bodies that function as regional commands. Pushed out of Afghanistan, the militants regrouped across the border in Pakistan. The names of several of the Taliban’s regional shuras-Miran Shah, Peshawar, and Quetta-correspond to the Pakistani cities where the leadership was based, although these shuras controlled provinces and regions within Afghanistan.

In return for pledging fealty to the Taliban’s leadership council, the Taliban granted the Haqqanis with official decision-making power and access to the group’s finances. Meanwhile, Jalaluddin groomed his son Sirajuddin to assume a more prominent role within the Haqqani network and, accordingly, within the Taliban’s organizational structure.

Under Sirajuddin, the Haqqani network developed a fearsome reputation due to its high-profile attacks in Kabul and use of tactics like suicide bombings. Indeed, the Haqqani network was the first element of the Taliban to embrace suicide bombings, which it learned from al Qaeda and began using in 2004. The Haqqanis served as the tip of the spear in the so-called Kabul Attack Network, a syndicate of terrorist groups responsible for planning some of the most lethal attacks in Kabul during the past two decades. The relationship between the Haqqanis and al Qaeda remains strong today. Commenting on Sirajuddin, Afghanistan expert Melissa Skorka notes that even in 2021, “Mr. Haqqani marches in lockstep with his al Qaeda base.”

Following the 2013 death of the Taliban’s longtime emir, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the group anointed Mullah Mansour as their new leader; Sirajuddin became the Taliban’s de facto military chief and one of Mansour’s two deputies, along with Haibatullah Akhundzada. (Akhundzada would succeed Mansour after his death in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in 2016.) Sirajuddin also installed his uncle, Khalil, as the leader of the Peshawar Shura, thereby cementing his control over Taliban operations in a large swath of Afghanistan, including Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman provinces as well as Wardak, Parwan, and Kapisa provinces.

Under a more consolidated Haqqani leadership, the Taliban increased their operational tempo, launching more sophisticated and deadlier attacks. Sirajuddin, as a deputy to Akhundzada, was formally given charge of Taliban activities in 20 Afghan provinces, including the capital, while the other 14 remained with Akhundzada’s second deputy, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob.

Mansour’s and then Akhundzada’s relative lack of battlefield experience meant Sirajuddin had almost total autonomy over military strategy and operations. Although Sirajuddin had long been involved in planning and executing Taliban terrorist campaigns, his newfound role gave him complete control. One Taliban leader said the group’s commanders needed Sirajuddin’s approval to change plans, and in 2016, a former Haqqani commander reported “no one can be appointed [as a Taliban governor] without [Sirajuddin’s] advice,” and “the influence of Sirajuddin in the Taliban ranks seems to be just growing.”

Sirajuddin officially succeeded his father as the head of the Haqqani network after his father’s death in 2018, and he leads the group to this day. At each stage, the Haqqani network has officially remained part of the Taliban; however, the nature and depth of their operational collaboration have evolved over the last two decades. Sirajuddin has continuously pushed the Taliban to adopt a more extreme stance. Now that the Taliban control Afghanistan, few expect that to cease.

Within the Taliban, the Haqqani cadre has continually pushed for complex, high-casualty attacks that often result in significant numbers of civilian casualties. The Haqqani network is also thought to be even more anti-United States than other parts of the Taliban. In fact, Don Rassler and Vahid Brown, co-authors of one of the most deeply researched books on the Haqqani network, believe the Haqqanis influenced al Qaeda to view the United States as the primary target of global jihad.

Many claim a collaboration between the Haqqani network and the Taliban’s brutal rival, the Islamic State-Khorasan, but this is a general misreading of the situation. The confusion largely stems from the complex relationship between the groups’ cadres. Islamic State-Khorasan initially formed along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border’s eastern region, an area long dominated by the Haqqani network and its jihadi allies. As such, those Taliban members who defected to Islamic State-Khorasan from this region were previously under the Haqqani network’s command. For example, before he became a senior Islamic State-Khorasan member, Saad Emirati was both a prominent Haqqani commander from Logar province and subsequently in charge of his own group within the Tehrik-i-Taliban (or Pakistani Taliban).

Although there may be connections at the individual levels and lower ranks, there is scant evidence of a more robust relationship or anything resembling organizational support. But just because the Haqqani network is not allied with Islamic State-Khorasan does not mean Sirajuddin and his ilk are any less ruthless.

For an indication of how Sirajuddin will operate in his role as interior minister, look no further than a recent ceremony he presided over honoring the families of Taliban suicide attackers. Sirajuddin even doled out cash rewards and plots of land to the families of the attackers, whom he labeled “martyrs.” In his 33-minute speech, Sirajuddin portrayed himself as the mastermind of these attacks and suggested there will be more to come against the Taliban’s enemies. Clearly, Sirajuddin has ambitions to keep his position as the Taliban’s primary military strategist, with suicide attacks remaining a go-to tactic in the group’s repertoire.

Another harbinger of the Taliban’s future path is the relationship between Sirajuddin and foreign fighters, including al Qaeda militants, Pakistani Taliban fighters, and members of Central Asian jihadi groups. According to the United Nations Security Council’s most recent assessment, there are more than 10,000 jihadis operating in Afghanistan with links to the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network is the lynchpin of this relationship.

As Afghanistan’s interior minister, Sirajuddin holds power in the Taliban structure beyond his ministry role. For example, his ministry is involved with the appointment of provincial and district governors. Although he avoids meetings and public appearances due to the numerous bounties on his head, his younger brother Anas Haqqani represents him in meetings both within and outside of Afghanistan. Sirajuddin’s influence with foreign fighters also makes him one of the most influential leaders in the Taliban and one called on by other countries to help deal with groups these states consider a threat. Sirajuddin is currently playing a central role in mediating negotiations between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani state, for instance. This leverage provides Sirajuddin with increased stature because countries like Pakistan need his support to help mitigate the threat posed by various militant groups with links to Afghanistan.

In a February 2020 op-ed in the New York Times, in response to concerns from the international community about Afghanistan once again becoming a sanctuary for terrorist groups like al Qaeda, Sirajuddin wrote, “reports about foreign groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.” A year and a half before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Sirajuddin let the world know exactly what he thought about his group’s relationship with al Qaeda.

The international community cannot simply feign ignorance and should begin preparing for a bloodier phase in Afghanistan now that one of the world’s most wanted terrorists is at the helm. Although the Haqqani network is an integral part of the Taliban, it needs special attention from the international community. Pakistan’s close relationship with the Haqqanis is a potential pressure point, although given Islamabad’s consistently duplicitous behavior vis-a-vis the conflict in Afghanistan, many remain skeptical of this option.

There are simply very few options for dealing with a Taliban-led government stacked with officially designated terrorists in leadership positions. Over time, other countries may seek to recognize the Taliban, including China and Russia. If that happens, the Haqqanis’ coronation will become a fait accompli, putting the United States in a lose-lose situation in Afghanistan where it either follows suit to cut its losses, thus legitimizing a government with blood on its hands, or remains on the outside looking in with no leverage to impact the situation.

Originally published at https://foreignpolicy.com on November 4, 2021.

Researcher: Af-Pak and South Asia´s Security and Politics; (Sunni Jihad: AQ, AQIS, ISKP, Taliban/Jihadi groups) (MSc: Pol.Sci) (BSc: Peace & Development; IR)