This is a guest post by Melissa Skorka. She served as a strategic adviser to the commander of International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2011-14 and is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Centre.
This post is the first in a two-part series on terrorism in Afghanistan. The second is here.
As the Donald J. Trump administration aims to end a “‘slowly deteriorating stalemate,’ with ‘no military victory’ possible,” President Trump has supported withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in exchange for peace with the Afghan Taliban. According to some accounts, the reduction of U.S. forces seems imminent, irrespective of the peace negotiation.
Notwithstanding whether Washington pulls out U.S. combat forces, Trump said he would leave “a very strong intelligence” presence in Afghanistan, which he calls the “Harvard of terrorists.” If this strategy is to achieve its security goals, it should account for a fundamental concern that has not received sufficient attention: how modern terrorist organizations usurp U.S. foreign policy in order to survive and even prosper by adapting to Western counterterrorism measures in insidious and often underestimated ways.
The Haqqani network, a terror network with close ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has evolved over the last half-century and now exerts unprecedented influence in the Afghan insurgency, according to the UN ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team. In fact, as the UN Team stated in an interview for this blog:
There is no evidence that the Taliban have broken or will in future break their intrinsic relationship with the Haqqani Network and Al-Qaida. Recent reporting would suggest that these connections are actually stronger than at any time in the past 18 years. Calculations over withdrawal from Afghanistan should take account of the risk of undermining prospects for a durable peace by empowering and emboldening these groups.
The Haqqani network has increasingly become a potent force, one whose relationship with state and non-state patrons will determine what sort of country Afghanistan becomes, perhaps even more than the plans of the government in Kabul and the Taliban. The success of the Trump administration’s peace strategy will depend on whether it can eliminate, co-opt, or separate the Haqqani network from al-Qaeda and the ISI, two organizations that for decades have relied on terror proxies to advance strategic interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Despite advanced counterterrorism measures, the Haqqani network’s resilience and growth demonstrate that it is experienced at subverting U.S. policy, and that it will likely continue to do so in the next phase of conflict. The terrorists’ subversion strategy is reflected by their political evolution. Since 9/11, the Haqqani network has grown from a relatively small, tribal-based jihadi network into one of the most influential terrorist organizations in South Asia. This power consolidation is reflected in the prominent role of the syndicate’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is widely understood to be operating as the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command since 2015, leading all military operations for the overall insurgency.
Among its operations, the Haqqani network masterminded attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul in 2011, on the U.S. consulate in Herat Province in 2013, and allegedly on a U.S. base in Khost Province in 2009, which killed seven CIA operatives. The group detained U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, New York Times reporter David Rohde, and U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein, who died in the custody of the terrorists, U.S. officials say.
Unlike the majority of Afghanistan-based terrorist groups, the Haqqani network has succeeded in cultivating a posture of “international jihad” for nearly the last half-century, in part because it has forged relationships with a diverse set of politically or ideologically like-minded supporters. These include senior al-Qaeda members and foreign fighter volunteers from around the world, factions of the Pakistani Taliban, and wealthy private donors from the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.
Counterterrorism specialists Vahid Brown and Don Rassler demonstrate that “the Haqqani network has been more important to the development and sustainment of al‐Qa’ida and the global jihad than any other single actor or group.”
Today, the Haqqani network now includes nearly every Deobandi jihadi faction operating in the settled areas of Pakistan–factions that would cease to exist if not for Sirajuddin Haqqani’s provision of protection and patronage, U.S. officials say. Washington should now consider fresh data about the Haqqani network’s expanding influence in lands far beyond South Asia. General John R. Allen, the former commander of the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan, and the U.S. special envoy spearheading the fight in Iraq and Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, observed that the United States has been concerned about the Haqqani network’s expansion beyond South Asia: “Although many Jihadi groups are sending their rank and file to places like Syria, few of these groups have the close relations with al Qaeda, media savvy, military capability, and technical expertise for suicide attacks like the Haqqani network.”
The idea that terrorists “evolve” is not novel, but today's scale and pace of adaptation are altogether new, and, some counterterrorism experts believe, are too often underappreciated. Modern terrorists adapt to new opportunities and threats by using the internet to build increasingly powerful global networks to command forces and radicalize new adherents, by weaponizing abundantly available advanced technology such as commercial drones, and by rapidly exploiting global political and societal changes.
U.S. policymakers need to consider not just the direction of the trend, but also its strength and speed. As Retired Lieutenant General Michael Nagata, former Strategy Director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, notes:
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) was a revelation. In only five years, ISIS's global network is today larger than al Qaeda's despite decades of effort, and all terrorist groups are mimicking ISIS' innovations. In South Asia, where we face a nexus of al Qaeda, Taliban, Haqqani, and ISIS, our search for a negotiated settlement must confront the question of whether we can ‘out-innovate’ the adversary. It is unwise to assume that our traditional approaches will suffice… these adversaries adapt too quickly.
Washington has relied on Islamabad to resolve post-9/11 security threats, especially with regard to al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. Pakistan has exploited this Western policy by supporting Islamist proxies under the “nuclear umbrella” to buttress the state’s own narrow strategic agenda. As the Trump administration and U.S. officials now regularly observe, Pakistan is harboring one of the highest concentrations of U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in the world. American officials quietly place blame for Islamabad offering sanctuary for violent extremists in the region squarely on the ISI’s shoulders. The ISI continues, as it has for many years, to view the Haqqani network as particularly valuable to Pakistan’s strategic interests in anticipation of a post-NATO Afghanistan. The Haqqani network’s cohesion and reach have helped the ISI angle toward its long sought-after “strategic depth,” a euphemism for a compliant regime in Kabul to avoid Pakistan’s encirclement by India.
Publicly, the Haqqani network keeps its relationship with state and non-state sponsors of terror opaque. But empirical evidence is clear: the Haqqani network has shown no sign it is willing to end its decades-long support of al-Qaeda or provision of haven for terrorist groups with global ambitions. Over nearly four decades, the Haqqani network has created a fountainhead of jihad by facilitating al-Qaeda and adapting to the various changes that have swept the region. Holding peace talks with the Taliban is futile if the United States is not also committed to disaggregating and defeating the ascendant Haqqani network and its partners.