Many senior scholars and analysts argue that the “forever war” in Afghanistan long ago evolved, expanding from “a limited focus on counterterrorism to a broad nation-building effort without discussion about the implications for the duration and intensity of the military campaign.” In the latter years of Barack Obama’s presidency, that broader effort was scaled down dramatically, but it was extended in the face of a renewed understanding of Afghanistan’s potential to serve as a Petri dish for transnational terrorist organizations such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Consequently, as a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report concludes: “After expending nearly $800 billion and suffering over 2,400 killed, the United States is still there, having achieved at best a stalemate.”
Recent empirical evidence suggests a larger significance to the expanding influence of modern terrorism. The ways Islamist militants are effectively adapting to Western nation-building efforts indicate that they have become ineluctably political actors. Rather than focus on constructing new, parallel governance institutions, like the “shadow” structures of the Quetta Shura Taliban in southern Afghanistan, the Haqqani network has adopted a far more opportunistic approach: infiltrating the existing state architecture.
As the Haqqani network has found sanctuary in the largely lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and success with its decades-long practice of latently co-opting the Afghan state, the terrorist network stands ready to usurp the Kabul regime’s institutions of governance in highly-contested territory. The jury is still out on the potential outcomes of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. The probability of a collapse of the central Afghan government could be low, but the consequences would be severe, both sub-nationally and internationally. If the allied Taliban-Haqqani network factions take over in Kabul, U.S. decision-makers would need to consider the risk of destabilization or even civil war spilling across international borders, posing a serious challenge to Islamabad’s security. (The United States has long viewed Pakistan as its foremost strategic priority in the region and a state too nuclear to fail.) In such a scenario, the challenges inherent in a potential U.S.-supported effort to retake Kabul and other population centers would prove complex, as the Obama administration learned in 2014 in Syria and Iraq. But, in Afghanistan, the danger of an Islamist militant resurgence would require the United States to combat newly emboldened terror proxies directly sponsored by Pakistan, an ostensible U.S. ally, and protected under its “nuclear umbrella”.
Accelerating the withdrawal of foreign forces would likely facilitate the Haqqani network’s most resonant raison d’être, as a senior Afghan Taliban leader with close ties to Mullah Omar, interviewed for this blog recently suggested:
Pakistan is protecting Sirajuddin Haqqani in the hope of continuing jihad by proxy. As U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, Haqqani will acquire two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Success in Afghanistan will mean our Muslim brothers in the region, and around the world, will have managed to claim back our own rights in our own Islamic country. Sirajuddin understands that.
If American and NATO forces were extricated from the region and then were returned, they would find themselves fighting in territory dominated by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani alliances, which are even now influencing the Afghan political order from within Pakistan, infiltrating southeastern Afghanistan, reaching up to the northern provinces, and even stretching to its western border with Iran. Here policymakers are implored to ask: should the U.S. withdraw so precipitously, and then have to return to address the chaos that results?
In the post-2001 Afghan war, for as long as the West has perceived the Haqqani network as a purely military actor or criminal syndicate, it has often overlooked its political adaptation tactics, and in turn come to an incomplete understanding of its trajectory. It is difficult to verify the overarching goals of the Haqqani network’s next-generation terror model. But if Sirajuddin Haqqani indeed uses violence to facilitate relationships with state and non-state actors, to co-opt allies, and to neutralize rivals, then his true strategic ends will be not only to survive the variety of economic, environmental, and security challenges the network faces, but also to engage in selective violent acts in order to further garner power.
Washington should account for the Haqqani network’s more recent power consolidation, coupled with its symbiotic relationship with al-Qaeda, to ensure Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. This is ostensibly a condition for complete U.S. withdrawal, as stated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in June 2019.
However, the long-standing support for the Haqqani network by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has further complicated U.S counterterrorism policy, particularly when the U.S. should further adapt its approaches in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to address the true nature of the threat: a war in which Haqqani and al Qaeda affiliates, and the ISI, all compete for power, and sometimes collude.
This collusion takes many forms. For example, as senior U.S. intelligence officials have observed, the ISI gives advance warning to the Haqqani network prior to launching select military operations in order to protect its terror proxy. This was perhaps best exemplified during the 2014 Zarb-e Azb counterterrorism operation, which was incompletely executed as the Pakistani Army did not fight all militant organizations equally. In this case, although Islamabad partnered with the United States in select counterterrorism efforts against anti-Pakistan groups (including some elements of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban), it continued to serve as patron to anti-Indian and anti-Afghan terrorists. Indeed, the ISI has still not moved against the Haqqani network’s most influential actors, as an Afghan tribal elder in Haqqani’s ancestral homeland observed:
When Pakistan faces pressure from the West and needs ‘political breathing space,’ the ISI temporarily arrests them or merely provides the U.S. with actionable intelligence for targeting select commanders, but Pakistan will never give the West drone coordinates for Haqqani’s most important leaders.
The United States, in concert with the legitimate Afghan government, should continue to pursue talks with the Afghan Taliban. But let us not neglect reality: the crescent of al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network’s history is long, and it bends toward terror. Sirajuddin could be ready for peace, but he is also ready to win the war, and he marches in lockstep with his al-Qaeda base.
This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.