The New Kingmaker in Afghanistan

Heritage Explains

The New Kingmaker in Afghanistan

While the Taliban is in power, the more extreme Haqqani Network is becoming the real kingmakers in Afghanistan

Tim Doescher: From the Heritage Foundation, I'm Doescher and this is Heritage Explains.

Doescher: It will be hard to forget the scene at the Kabul International Airport in late summer of 2021. Incredible scenes as the US withdrew and the Taliban took over. Seeing desperate people latch onto a plane as it took off, and then seeing them inevitably fall. The horrific suicide bombing that took the lives of 13 US service members and 169 Afghans. And while it all happened, many of the news reports and commentators talked about the certain destruction of freedom and liberty for Afghan people after the Taliban retook control. But after a few weeks, Afghanistan seemed to move off the front pages and a lot of people who watched it intently lost track. So here's an important development you need to know about.

Clip 1: The men you see here taking over Afghanistan's presidential palaces had been planning this for years. The group they belonged to, the Taliban, translated to students in English, have been trying to get back into power ever since they were toppled 20 years ago. Sarajadin Haqqani doubles as both deputy leader and head of the powerful Haqqani Network. A US designated terror group considered one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan.

Clip 2: Sarajadin Haqqani, Afghanistan's new interior minister, is wanted for questioning by the FBI in connection for targeted a Kabul hotel in 2008, which killed six people, including one American. The Haqqani Network has carried out a spate of high profile, deadly terror attacks in Afghanistan, including a car bombing outside the Indian embassy in 2009 and a truck bomb explosion in 2017.

Clip 3: The Haqqani Network, and Americans need to understand this, this network is the most dangerous terrorist group they've never heard of. And this guy, Sarajadin Haqqani is the worst of the worst. He's kind of a combination of Charles Manson and John Gotti combined. On the one hand, they are the money and the muscle behind the Taliban. He's the number two in the Taliban, but his father was Osama bin Laden's mentor.

Doescher: Okay. Clearly things are getting worse.

Doescher: And now that the US is withdrawn, we're without a lot of things. I mean military equipment and diplomatic relations, that's one thing, but more, it's certain our ability to gather intelligence that could potentially stop future terrorist attacks has also been severely limited. So where does this leave us and who is the Haqqani Network anyway? Who's behind their rise to power?

Doescher: On this episode, we talk with Jeff Smith. He's a research fellow here at the Heritage Foundation and wrote an incredible piece, making the case that while the Taliban is in power, the Haqqani network is becoming the real king makers in Afghanistan. So buckle up folks, we're going to get into these fascinating yet consequential power dynamics right after this.

Doescher: Jeff, you're an ACE on this issue. You're a master of your craft, no question about it. You drive a lot of the messaging on this whole issue. So just first of all, thank you for being here today.

Jeff Smith: It's great to be here.

Doescher: So this issue in Afghanistan is so complex and it's not just internal players, it's regional players. Seems like many others, global dynamics are at play here. And so in your recent piece, you deep dive into the Haqqani Network being one of the major players that has risen, in fact, you call them a king maker, since August, when we saw the horrible withdrawal from Afghanistan. All the crazy videos of people hanging onto planes and at the airport and the Taliban taking back over. So before we get there, before we get to all the dynamics, why don't you just tell us a little bit about Haqqani Network? Who are they? Where are they from? What's their goal in Afghanistan and beyond?

Smith: Yeah. Great question. So the Haqqani Network is seen by many people as a faction of the Taliban, but they're actually older than in the Taliban. They arose in the region in the mid 1970s.

Doescher: Okay.

Smith: In Pakistan's tribal areas. And it was a group of exiled, Afghan dissidents, who were opposed to the new government in Afghanistan, in the mid 1970s. A new government that was very critical of Pakistan at the time. So Pakistan took these dissidents, who had fled Afghanistan, and began providing them money and arms to go back and conduct attacks inside Afghanistan.

Smith: The Soviet Union invades in 1979 and Pakistan reactivates the Haqqani Network to begin fighting against the Soviet Union. Actually a common enemy of ours at the time.

Doescher: Right.

Smith: There's sort of some myths about the US support to the Afghan mujahideen back in the 1980s. The sort of common telling says the US actually funded the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network and these other groups. That's not exactly true. Haqqani network has-

Doescher: That's I just going to say, that's what I read when I was prepping for this.

Smith: Right.

Doescher: We gave them arms to defeat the Soviets. Anyway, go ahead.

Smith: Well, so what actually happened was, we said to Pakistan, "we have a common enemy in the Soviet Union. We see that you're arming their opponents in Afghanistan. We want to help." And what the Pakistani said to us was, "that's fine, but you give us the money in the arms and we'll distribute them to the groups that we see fit." And what they ended up doing was distributing the money to the most radical groups, the most pro Pakistan groups, the most loyal groups, but also the most radical groups, including eventually Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network.

Smith: And so they effectively win the civil war. They evict the Soviets in the 1990s, the Taliban, this new movement rises in the chaos of the Soviet withdrawal. There was a civil war in Afghanistan. The Taliban wins that civil war and the Haqqani Network sort of joins forces with the Taliban at that point. They're part of the same government, the one that was harboring Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda when the 9/11 attack happened. So we invade in 2001 and the Haqqani Network and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda escaped to Pakistan's tribal areas where they receive support and safe Haven from the Pakistani-

Doescher: So from what I understand, just let me stop you here. Sorry.

Smith: Of course.

Doescher: From what I understand where the Haqqani Network is in Afghanistan is right on the border of Pakistan. On sort of in the Eastern part of Afghanistan and that's the Northwestern part of Pakistan. Is that correct?

Smith: Exactly.

Doescher: Okay. So they're literally going back and forth all the time.

Smith: Yes.

Doescher: Okay.

Smith: And they control the border crossings.

Doescher: Oh.

Smith: And so that gives them a lot of power and influence to be able to hop back and forth. Right?

Doescher: Right.

Smith: So to conduct attacks in. Afghanistan, then hop back over the border into Pakistan where they can't be touched.

Doescher: Okay.

Smith: And we actually know for a fact that after the Haqqani Network began launching major terrorist attacks against the US in Afghanistan, we tried to hit them in their safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas. And Pakistan's military intelligence complex warned them ahead of time.

Doescher: Oh wow.

Smith: And so we have a situation where Pakistan is ostensibly helping us in Afghanistan. They say we have the same goals. They're letting us use their territory. And at same time they're providing support and safe haven to these groups, these proxy groups that they've been using for decades.

Doescher: So let's just stick with Haqqani here. So how big is Haqqani Network? Number one and number two... Well, I guess it's two separate questions. How big are they? And to my knowledge, they're not that big. So why wouldn't they just absorb into the Taliban?

Smith: Yeah. Great question. So the Haqqani come from a different part of Afghanistan than the traditional Taliban leadership and the groups. They're from the southern part of Afghanistan around Kandahar, the Taliban are. They're both Pashtun, part of the same ethnic group, but the Haqqanis are from the sort of more mountainous north and east. And so they're geographically divided and they haven't always agreed on everything. The Haqqanis have always been resistant to central authority, even under the Taliban, but they cooperate when they have a common goal. And they saw a common goal in evicting the United States from Afghanistan and so they work together. And the Haqqani even formally be of came a part of the Taliban during the US war in Afghanistan. So they're increasingly intertwined, though, as we found after the fall of Kabul, they also don't agree on everything.

Doescher: Yeah. I saw that when they started naming members of Haqqani in the government, in Afghanistan, after things fell in this past August. I saw mentions of fist fights breaking out between Haqqani and the Taliban. And I say, well, there's there's trouble here.

Smith: Yeah. And Of course they don't exactly publicize their internal tensions, but there are indications that the two sides really don't get along and the Haqqani have made a power play to be the new king makers in Kabul. And it seems that the Pakistani military intelligence complex is backing them.

Doescher: Oh, wow.

Smith: In this sort of mini rivalry between the Haqqani and the Taliban.

Doescher: Dig more into the king maker, because obviously that's the name of your piece about the Haqqani Network. So how are they becoming the king makers? All we hear is Taliban. All we hear is Taliban. Taliban's back in control.

Smith: Right.

Doescher: Al-Qaeda's going to become the terrorist force that they were, they're on the rise, all that stuff like that. But then you have Haqqani, how are they king makers or becoming king makers?

Smith: Yeah. So they've risen in prominence in recent years in part because they often orchestrated the deadliest attacks on the US during the Afghan war. The deadliest suicide bombings on international hotels, we're almost certain, they were responsible for attacks on the US Embassy. They actually are responsible, almost certainly, for the deadliest attack on the CIA in the organization's history.

Doescher: Wow.

Smith: In 2009, they orchestrated a suicide bombing at an outpost in Eastern Afghanistan. And so they were known for being particularly brutal and waging a brutal terrorist campaign against the Afghan government. And they were frankly effective in doing so. They also, in 2015, the long time head of the Taliban, they announced his death, and so there was an internal power struggle. And that seems to have given the Haqqanis an opportunity to climb the leadership ranks within the Taliban, assume more control for themselves. And through their relationship with Pakistan and the ISI it seems they've been outmaneuvering some of the traditional Afghan Taliban leaders by being even more radical than they are.

Doescher: Wow.

Smith: The other important difference, I just want to point out, is that the Taliban are not the good guys. They were never the good guys. They will never be the good guys. They're mistreatment of women and minorities is horrific, their record of attacks against the US and the Afghan government are horrific. They'll never be partners of the US, but there are distinctions to be made between really bad guys and even worse guys.

Doescher: Wow.

Smith: Between folks who are interested mostly in implementing their medieval vision inside Afghanistan, which is more of what the traditional Afghan and Taliban are. And then the Haqqanis, who seem to have more of this vision of a global jihad. All of that is to say that the Taliban ruling Afghanistan is already a nightmare scenario, the Haqqanis make it even worse.

Doescher: One of the things that I wanted to dig in here, because you are an expert in this area and in your piece, you make an incredible connection between Pakistan. And we've been talking about it now, but I wanted to get into it a little bit more. You say that they play both sides of this, they're our ally sort of. They are, but then they're also allies with Haqqani. With these people and yet we are still now in a position where we're dickering with them. We're bartering with them in order to get a foothold in this region because we don't have on an Afghanistan. Talk a little bit about that really complex dynamic that Pakistan is playing right now.

Smith: Yes. It is essentially what has undermined our war effort in Afghanistan from day one. As noted, Pakistan has maintained links to the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, for many years predating the US invasion of Afghanistan. So when we did invade in 2001 after 9/11, many of these militant groups fled to Pakistan's tribal areas. And we essentially said to the Pakistan's you need to help us, or they're going to be grave consequences.

Smith: And they said, "sure. You can use our airspace. You can use our roads to get into Afghanistan and supply your troops. We're happy to be your partner." And at the same time, we know for a fact, that the military and intelligence complex was covertly aiding and supporting the Taliban. Letting them and the Haqqanis use Pakistani territory to launch attacks in Afghanistan and then come back and find safe haven and support. We even know they would warn key Haqqani network and Taliban leaders before the US would launch a drone strike to try to target them in Pakistan's tribal areas. They have been very openly playing this double game for many, many years.

Doescher: What do they... I'm sorry to interrupt, but what do they have to gain?

Smith: Right.

Doescher: From enabling, empowering terrorist groups?

Smith: Excellent question. They want more than anything else, a government in Afghanistan that is pliable, and that is pro-Pakistan. That is subservient to their interest. And they don't want a government that is friendly to India, or that might challenge them on the Durand Line, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. So they essentially want a loyal proxy in Afghanistan and they see the Taliban as their most loyal proxy in the region.

Smith: It's obviously a little more complicated than that, but that's probably the quickest and cleanest explanation for why they support these groups. And it's largely a sort of figment of their imagination. This notion that a free and independent Afghanistan would somehow make an alliance with India and they would encircle Pakistan. I mean, it's nonsense.

Doescher: Yeah.

Smith: But they portray this image that we're constantly under siege. The siege mentality, frankly, in order to get more money for the military and intelligence services, to spread propaganda among the people that, "everyone's out to get us and all of our problems are someone else's fault. Not ours, someone else's fault. Mainly India." So their obsession with this India rivalry and this sort of specter that Afghanistan would somehow be antagonistic toward them if they don't have the Taliban in power there, is partly what has driven them to support the Taliban and these group.

Smith: They also share a similar Islamist ideology. You know, the Pakistani state has been promoting radical extremist groups for decades now. Openly, very openly. The question is, why did we allow them to get away with it for so long?

Doescher: Yes.

Smith: And that to me, gets, gets to the crux of the issue. Partly it was a failure of imagination. Partly it was south Asia experts here in Washington saying you can't possibly cut off the aid to Pakistan. Otherwise, the consequences would be disastrous. I was, for years, argued otherwise. And I commended President Trump when early in his tenure, he came into office and said, "that's it we're done with this. We're not giving Pakistan billions of dollars anymore. We're cutting off the aid today."

Doescher: Wow. Trump did that?

Smith: Trump did that.

Doescher: Yeah.

Smith: New Year's Day he sent out a tweet-

Doescher: Wow.

Smith: ... announcing that all US aid to Pakistan was suspended and the apocalyptic predictions about what would happen did not come true.

Doescher: In your piece, you say this and it leads to where we go from here. That's where we're trying to get to. Okay. So you say quote, "the Biden administration, thus confronts the same tragic dilemma that has haunted US policy in Afghanistan for 20 years, fighting terrorists in a landlocked country requires cooperation with one of its neighbors. Since cooperation with Iran, China and Russia is impractical. The only alternative is Pakistan, the key patron of the Taliban and Haqqani Network for decades." So where do we go from here? How do we establish a foothold somewhere that we don't have one anymore?

Smith: Yeah. Afghanistan has Iran to the west, not going to happen.

Doescher: Yeah.

Smith: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. Tajikistan is actually sympathetic, they don't like the Taliban either. There's a large Tajik population in Afghanistan that was treated poorly under the Taliban. They fear that they're going to be mistreated again. They're sympathetic to us, but they face a lot of pressure from Russia and China.

Doescher: Okay.

Smith: Who are highly influential in central Asia, not to enter any arrangement with the US. So they're likely off the table as well. And that does only leave Pakistan. Now you can say, we're just going to have an over the horizon capability and not work with any of Afghanistan's neighbors. But that severely limits and restricts what you can do in Afghanistan, how quickly you can even get a drone into the country. What type of intelligence you can have on the ground, what you can support on the ground. And so the Biden administration is talking to Pakistan again about some type of arrangement. Whether to use the airspace or ground lines of communication. There was a time when we actually were using... There was a US military base in Pakistan, or at least we were launching craft from a Pakistani military base. It seems unlikely we'll go there again, but some kind of arrangement, by necessity, the Biden administration is pursuing.

Smith: What I argue in the article is we cannot fall into the same trap as before. We cannot trade access for Afghanistan in return for acceptance of this double game, because that's what got us here in the first place.

Doescher: Wow.

Smith: We have to recognize that the United States is a superpower and that Pakistan has more to lose from an openly antagonistic relationship with us, than we have to lose from antagonistic relationship with them. And we have to muster all elements of national power to say to them, "if you continue supporting these terrorist groups that have American blood on their hands, you will face a wave of escalating pressure that will continue to increase until you stop." There have to be both carrots and sticks.

Smith: That was the problem I think. For 20 years, we tried to change their cost benefit calculation without imposing any costs. Hmm. We tried to lecture them about why this is not in your interest to support these groups, but from their perspective it was in their interest. They wanted the Haqqanis in power in Afghanistan, they won. They got the Haqqanis and the Taliban and power in Afghanistan. And they got us to pay 20 billion toward that goal.

Doescher: The piece is called "The Haqqani Network, The New King Makers in Kabul" and I'm going to link to it in the show notes, folks. This is expansive. This is well written and this is exactly the kind of stuff that needs to happen after we see those tragic scenes from the US withdraw from Afghanistan in August. This is the follow up that we need to have. So Jeff, I just wanted to say thank you for doing it.

Smith: Thank you. It's been great. Pleasure.

Doescher: Yeah, and we'll see you soon. Man, I just want to give another big thank you to Smith for doing this episode. His piece, well, actually, it's more of an expose on this situation in Afghanistan, is so valuable and worth the read. Please head over to the show notes because we've linked to it there. Also, give us some love in the comment section or by giving us five stars wherever you listen to this podcast. The next episode is one of my favorites: Thanksgiving. Such a special time. I'll catch you then.