The Washington Post

U.S. branded Haqqanis terrorists. Now they govern in Afghanista­n.

- BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN

doha, qatar — Twenty years after al- Qaeda attacked the United States — a plot hatched in Afghanista­n — its loyalists hold senior positions in the Taliban’s new transition­al government. There is one name that stands out: Haqqani.

A U.N. report in June described the Haqqani network as the “primary liaison between the Taliban and Al- Qaida.” Its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani — a brutal insurgent commander known for dispatchin­g suicide bombers who’ve killed or maimed hundreds of civilians — was “assessed to be a member of the wider Al- Qaida leadership, but not of the AlQaida core leadership.”

Today, he is Afghanista­n’s acting interior minister, overseeing the nation’s police, intelligen­ce services and other security forces.

He is also in charge of combating terrorism.

“It’s a major concern,” said Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, an intelligen­ce and security consulting firm. “You are one step removed from having the group that attacked us on 9/11 running the country.”

The appointmen­t of Haqqani, as well as relatives and members of his network, underscore­s his immense influence inside the Taliban. It also raises concerns that the new government will pursue a hard-line agenda, even as Taliban leaders publicly claim to be gentler and more moderate than their brutal image in an effort to curry favor with donors and foreign government­s.

Haqqani’s political rise puts the Biden administra­tion and other Western government­s in a precarious position, particular­ly in countering terrorist threats. They are forced to have relationsh­ips with people they have sanctioned, many with bounties on their heads, for committing or sponsoring terrorism — or targeting Americans. In the interim government, at least 14 of the 33 cabinet members are on U.N. sanctions lists.

A Taliban spokesman did not immediatel­y respond to questions about the Haqqanis’ alleged al- Qaeda ties and concerns they could complicate much-needed relationsh­ips with foreign government­s, the United Nations and internatio­nal donors.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is on the FBI’S most wanted list with a $5 million reward for informatio­n leading to his arrest. The State Department, through its Rewards For Justice Program, is offering $10 million, describing him as “a specially designated global terrorist.”

He is wanted for “questionin­g in connection with” a January 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel that killed six people, including a U.S. citizen. He is also believed to have orchestrat­ed attacks against U.S. and coalition forces and in planning an assassinat­ion attempt of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the State Department says.

Khalil Haqqani, the uncle of Sirajuddin, is the acting Taliban minister for refugees. The State Department is offering up to $5 million for his capture, in part because he “acted on behalf of al- Qaida and has been linked to al- Qaida terrorist operations.”

In 2012, the United States designated the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organizati­on.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Wednesday that the Taliban interim government “does not meet the test of inclusivit­y, and it includes people who have very challengin­g track records.”

“Our engagement with the Taliban and with the government — interim or longer — will be for purposes of advancing the national interest, our national interest and that of our partners,” Blinken said. “We have and we will find ways to engage the Taliban, the interim government, a future government, to do just that and to do it in ways that are fully consistent with our laws.”

On Thursday, the Taliban demanded that the United States and the United Nations remove the Haqqanis and other cabinet members from their “blacklists,” declaring that they violated the agreements of a peace deal signed in Doha, Qatar. The group also criticized Pentagon officials for noting that the Haqqanis were still targets.

“That America and other countries are making such provocativ­e statements and trying to meddle in the internal affairs of Afghanista­n, the Islamic Emirate condemns it in the strongest terms,” the Taliban said in a statement. “Such remarks by U.S. officials are a repetition of past failed experiment­s, and such positions are detrimenta­l for America.”

“It’s a pretty difficult spot for the Biden administra­tion,” Clarke said. “If you deal with the Taliban in these confines, you are essentiall­y dealing with a terrorist group or members of a terrorist organizati­on. And if you don’t, you have no leverage and no influence to control events in Afghanista­n.”

The Haqqanis trace their roots to the Soviet Cold War occupation of the 1980s and the Afghan mujahideen struggle to liberate their nation. Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin, was a famed commander and CIA asset who forged a close alliance with Osama bin Laden and other foreign Islamist militants who arrived to push the Soviet troops out of Afghanista­n.

In 1996, the elder Haqqani aligned with the Taliban, helping the movement seize the country for the first time. He served as a cabinet minister and a provincial governor. When the Taliban was toppled in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, the Haqqanis became an integral part of the insurgency against U.s.-led NATO forces.

In 2018, the Taliban announced the death of Jalaluddin due to an undisclose­d illness. By then, Sirajuddin was already in charge of the Haqqani network, which was based in eastern Afghanista­n as well as in bases inside Pakistan’s Northwest Territorie­s; three years earlier, the Taliban had appointed him as a deputy leader.

The Haqqanis became known as “the most lethal and sophistica­ted insurgent group targeting US, Coalition, and Afghan forces,” often attacking with small-arms, rocket, suicide bombers and bomb-laden vehicles, according to the National Counterter­rorism Center.

The network orchestrat­ed some of the highest-profile attacks in the past two decades of war. This included a June 2011 assault on Kabul’s Interconti­nental hotel, two suicide bombings against the Indian embassy and a day-long assault on the U.S. Embassy and other high-profile targets in Kabul a decade ago.

“People must be both reassured and terrified by the fact that an entity seen as responsibl­e for some of the worst crimes of the war is now in charge of securing the population,” said Ashley Jackson, an expert on the Taliban at the Overseas Developmen­t Institute. “But there is a certain logic from inside the Taliban. ... If anyone can bring security, one assumes it’s the Haqqani network.”

But that could also pose a threat to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s influence inside the movement, where he has several rivals, including Mohammad Yaqoob, the acting defense minister and son of the Taliban’s late founder Mohammad Omar.

One of Haqqani’s primary challenges will be to prevent large-scale bombings by the Islamic State and other militant groups that are against the Taliban — like the attack on Kabul’s airport last month that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans.

“Since he’s number one now, it’s his responsibi­lity to prevent these urban attacks,” said Vanda Felbab-brown, director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institutio­n. “If he doesn’t, there’s going to be people unhappy, including within the Taliban. They will say ‘you have this important portfolio, what the hell are you doing?’ ”

Haqqani has also shown he can think strategica­lly off the battlefiel­d. Last year, he shared his visions in an op-ed in the New York Times with the headline: “What We, the Taliban, Want.” Many analysts viewed it as a shrewd tactical move to soothe the concerns of the United States and the internatio­nal community following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Everyone is tired of war,” the op-ed from the brutal warlord read. “I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop.”

“We are committed to working with other parties in a consultati­ve manner of genuine respect to agree on a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded,” the op-ed continued.

Today, the acting Taliban government is anything but inclusive. And there are already signs that Haqqani’s Interior Ministry will not tolerate dissent. Protests by women seeking basic rights have been broken up by Taliban fighters firing weapons and assaulting local journalist­s. An Interior Ministry statement this week decreed that all protests must be approved by the government at the risk of arrests.

“The Haqqani network is the kind of hammer that comes back down and doesn’t allow the Taliban to be perceived as moderate,” Clarke said. “That’s part of the reason why the Haqqanis are stacked in the government. It’s to make sure there is no deviation from what they have been working on for the past two decades.”

A key concern for the United States is whether Haqqani’s rising profile will open the gateway for al- Qaeda to resurrect itself in Afghanista­n. In the U.N. report, investigat­ors found that the Taliban and al- Qaeda “remain closely aligned and show no signs of breaking ties.” Al- Qaeda members live in at least 15 provinces.

At the moment, said both Jackson and Clarke, the Haqqanis appear more interested in growing their influence in the country, the region and within the Taliban movement rather than waging global jihad.

“They waited 20 years to get back into power,” Clarke said. “Now they are, and they want to hold on to that power.”

“It’s a major concern. You are one step removed from having the group that attacked us on 9/11 running the country.”

Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group

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