A terror network’s struggle for influence in Afghanistan

The presence of al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, under the protection of the Taliban in a luxury villa in Kabul raises important questions about who is actually running the country and what this means for U.S. and allied interests. 

When U.S. forces killed al-Zawahiri on July 31, he was not just visiting Afghanistan’s capital city. He and his family were staying in a home owned by the family of Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has emerged as Afghanistan’s most important and lethal power broker. As one of two deputies to the Taliban’s senior leader, Haqqani wields oversized influence in the government’s senior councils, with the power to appoint the governors of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.  

His position as interior minister gives him control over Kabul, Afghanistan’s internal security forces and its intelligence apparatus. In short, Haqqani runs the country’s “power ministries.” The clan’s personal army, the powerful Haqqani network, is a radical Afghan Islamist group that was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 2012, and the FBI offers a reward of up to $10 million for information that leads to Haqqani’s arrest. 

One year on from its return to power, the Taliban predictably has run Afghanistan into a ditch. More than half the population requires urgent food aid, including more than a million malnourished children. The health sector is collapsing. International donors, who had funded almost 80 percent of the country’s economy, have ceased their financial support. The United Nations estimates that as much as 97 percent of the country may fall below the poverty line by the second half of this year.

Afghanistan’s political struggles have exacerbated this humanitarian tragedy. Haqqani’s power grab appears to have sidelined the Taliban old guard, epitomized by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led the Taliban’s negotiations with the United States in Doha to end the war. Last September, the increasingly confident Haqqani faction forced Baradar and Defense Minister Yaqoob Omar, son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, to flee Kabul to the safety of their home base in Kandahar in a dispute over ministerial appointments. In the ensuing struggle for control of the government, the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service traveled to Kabul to ensure that the key positions went to Pakistani loyalists from the hardline Haqqani network, not those who led the Doha negotiations.

While Baradar and the Kandahari faction are attempting to broadly abide by the Doha Accord — in which the Taliban committed to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists in order to secure the release of $7 billion of Afghan foreign reserves frozen by the United States and its allies — the former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) recently acknowledged: “They’re finding it difficult to do.” 

According to a recent U.N. report, the reason for this failure is clear: “The Haqqani Network remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and al Qaeda.” Counterterrorism experts also assess that the Haqqani Network is using the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) as another tool to consolidate its power. 

As long as the Haqqanis remain Afghanistan’s ascendant power, international recognition of the country, containment of jihadist extremists and alleviation of Afghanistan’s accelerating humanitarian crisis will prove impossible. 

Two countries in particular bear a significant share of responsibility for this state of affairs: Pakistan long has provided sanctuary for the Haqqanis, as well as logistical and political support for the network. It is a notoriously two-faced U.S. ally whose military and security services work at cross-purposes to U.S. interests throughout the region. As one noted expert observed: “The removal of the Haqqanis from Afghanistan is an ambition which would unite most regional powers as well as the Kandaharis. However, it is difficult to see how it could possibly happen even if the support of Pakistan could be secured. The Haqqanis control Kabul, are heavily armed and intend to stay.”

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also plays an unhelpful role in support of the Haqqanis. Senior members of the Haqqani network, including Afghanistan’s current minister of refugees, Khalil al Haqqani, have relied on sources in the UAE for fundraising and have used the UAE as a base for their front companies. Emirati banks hold the accounts of senior Haqqani members. In return, this year the Haqqanis awarded the Emiratis a no-bid contract to run Kabul airport, which they control. In short, the UAE provides an essential financial lifeline to the Haqqani network. 

If the Biden administration is truly serious about fighting terror and helping the people of Afghanistan, it will have to adopt a tougher approach to putative allies such as Pakistan and the UAE. They are enabling a known terrorist enemy, in open contravention of both U.S. interests and international commitments. Enabling evil never works; it merely spawns more evil.  

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

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