Living in some of the most remote territory on earth, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s network of independent fighters has been called many things: a Taliban faction, an al-Qaeda affiliate, a terrorist organization. This week US officials even declared that the organization was a de facto part of the Pakistani military, allegations which threaten to finally sever the fraying alliance between the US and Pakistan.
Haqqani first came to prominence in the 1980s, with a major role in fighting the Soviet Union during the Afghan occupation. Heavily backed by the Reagan Administration, Haqqani was also on the CIA payroll during the era, and was even rumored to have visited the White House.
Since the 2001 US invasion and the NATO occupation, Haqqani’s role has continued to be redefined by officials, and several times he was reportedly courted by the Karzai government to join the US-backed administration.
The shift to “number one Afghan militant threat” is mostly a function of his presence in the Pakistani tribal areas. After much browbeating from the US, the Pakistani military invaded South Waziristan on the basis of the threat of the “Pakistani Taliban.” The US has since been trying to push an invasion of North Waziristan, but with no Taliban there, a reason was needed – enter Haqqani.
There is very little officials can agree on publicly about the network, and reports have the group comprising as many as 10,000 tribal fighters to as few as 300 actual full-time fighters. Sirajuddin, Haqqani’s son, insisted the real number is actually well over 10,000. Particularly noteworthy is that the US has killed well over 1,000 “suspects” in North Waziristan in drone strikes but that the group never seems to get any smaller.
Though the repeated drone strikes against North Waziristan surely give the group a reason to want to attack US targets now, their positioning as a major part of the war largely appears to be a matter of narrative convenience, as the administration looks for a new way to blame Pakistan for the failing occupation of Afghanistan and finds Haqqani’s territory as the last uninvaded tribal area. A force of 10,000 fighters or more is not particularly unusual in areas where tribesmen are all armed and bound by family ties into fighting forces.
The real thing that is missing, however, is a declaration of guilt by the Haqqanis themselves. Usually major terrorist groups can’t wait to declare themselves responsible for everything they did and many of the things other people did, and so far the major attacks that the US has tried to blame on the Haqqanis have all been claimed by Afghan Taliban factions, and not the Waziristan based Haqqanis.