By Mohammad Taqi
Several months into office, US President Donald Trump finally announced the country’s new strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region this August. The events of the past couple of weeks indicate what the contours of this strategy would look like and how Taliban and its chief patron Pakistan, intend to handle the mounting US pressure. There has been a barrage of drone strikes in the area straddling the Durand Line with Pakistan’s Kurram tribal agency to the east and the three Afghan provinces – Paktia, Paktika, Khowst, which together constitute the Loya Paktia (Greater Paktia) region – in the west. The Taliban has carried out a series of deadly attacks against both civil and military targets inside Afghanistan, killing hundreds. Pakistan, on its part, has gone from sheer bravado against the US, to ending up getting a US-Canadian couple that had been held by the Haqqani Network (HQN) released.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his maiden trip to Afghanistan and spoke to US commanders and the Afghan leadership duo – President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah – at the Bagram airbase near Kabul. Tillerson, who is expected to visit Pakistan on October 24, 2017, stated, “Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organisations that find safe-haven inside of Pakistan”. It is anticipated that while acknowledging Pakistan’s help in the recent hostage release, Tillerson will drive home the same points that he has made in the US and in Afghanistan.
What would make or break the new US strategy is how persistent it is in not just demanding verifiable evidence that Pakistan is dismantling the HQN, especially in the Kurram agency, but is willing to handover its ringleader Sirajuddin Haqqani. As a rule of thumb, declining to handover such terror lynchpins, on one pretext or the other, usually indicates that Pakistan is unwilling to close that chapter, as has been the case with Jamat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) Maulana Masood Azher.
The HQN presence in Kurram agency did not come about overnight. Pakistan has been actively relocating them out of their primary base in the adjacent North Waziristan agency to the adjoining Orakzai and Kurram agencies for almost eight years now. The Kurram agency’s geo-strategic location with its area dubbed the Parrot’s Beak jutting into Afghanistan had made it prime real estate for the Haqqanis and their handlers. The HQN has been operating out of North Waziristan since the mid-1970s and more so during the current Afghan conflict.
The Pakistani planners, however, realised around 2009-2010 that they would eventually have to show to the Americans that they are acting against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan. In preparation for this, both the Haqqanis and their Pakistani patrons sought alternative sanctuaries to which the network would be relocated.
The traditional rift between the Shia Pashtun tribesmen of the Upper Kurram with their Sunni compatriots from Southern Kurram provided an opening for the Taliban – both Afghan and Pakistani variety – around the spring of 2007 to get a toehold in the Lower Kurram ostensibly to back the Sunni tribesmen. The Taliban, including the Haqqanis, sought a thoroughfare through the Shia areas to Afghanistan to carry out insurgent activities. The Shia tribesmen organised a valiant armed resistance to both local and foreign jihadists and beat them back in several battles.
The jihadists blockaded the Shia tribesmen of the Upper Kurram by cutting off their main route to Peshawar, i.e., the Thall-Parachinar Road. The Shias negotiated a long, arduous Khost-Gardez-Kabul-Jalalabad route via Afghanistan to reach Peshawar, while the Pakistan army sat on its hands. Additionally, the Shia tribesmen utilised small civilian aircraft flights from Peshawar to Parachinar to get supplies, including medicines. They were thus able to sustain the Taliban onslaught for a good three years and deny the passage to the jihadists. The Pakistan army, through its paramilitary Frontier Corps, blockaded the Afghan routes, while the civil aviation authorities shut down the flights out of Peshawar, bringing the Shia resistance to its knees.
It was in this backdrop that the brothers of HQN’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, Ibrahim and Khalil Haqqani who live in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad region, were brought in by Pakistani authorities to arbitrate a settlement between the Shias of Upper Kurram on one hand and the Sunnis of the lower Kurram and Taliban on the other. Pakistan’s then federal interior minister Rehman Malik participated in some of these negotiations, which culminated in an accord in February 2011, lifting the blockade of the Upper Kurram agency. What was not written in the accord was that the Haqqanis got to extract their pound of flesh, i.e., an uninterrupted access, through the Shia areas, to the Durand Line and into Afghanistan. They already had been facilitated to establish safe havens in the Lower Kurram agency. While they were not allowed to settle around major Shia population centres, the towns and villages near the Durand Line were teeming with the Haqqanis’ cadres.
In fact, the recent eviction of the medical charity Medicines Sans Frontiers’ (MSF) from Lower Kurram, where they had worked for nearly a decade, suggests that Pakistan is increasingly apprehensive of another US sting operation like the one that deployed vaccination teams to track Osama bin Laden. This is not to suggest that the MSF would ever undertake such a proposition. However, it is also known that they had faced opposition when they attempted to expand their work to central and Upper Kurram.
I wrote a series of articles for the Daily Times, Pakistan from the autumn 2010 onwards, to point out this relocation and rehabilitation of the HQN in Kurram agency. But why is it pertinent to recount all this now? Simply, because Pakistan will do only enough to deflect and reduce US pressure. It always has.
From the early days of the present Afghan war, the Pakistani military leadership has capitulated to certain US demands while stubbornly dragging its feet on others. For example, General Pervez Musharraf was willing to handover several al-Qaeda operatives – for a charge, of course – to the US while vehemently denying that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan has consistently declined to act against the Taliban and HQN leadership it hosts. Unless the US is willing to tighten screws on Pakistan, beyond what it usually has been doing, chances are that Pakistan will again play to bide time and move the HQN cadres out of Kurram back to the adjacent tribal agencies and keep its leadership safe in large cities and indeed around the federal capital out of the US drones’ reach.
The recent pressure forced Pakistan to push some of the HQN and Taliban cadres and foot soldiers from Kurram across the Durand Line where they were easily picked by the American drones. However, not a single HQN leader has been nailed in this recent volley of Predator UAV attacks.
The case of the Canadian Joshua Boyle, American Caitlan Coleman and their children makes an interesting study as well. While the Pakistan military spokesperson bragged about freeing these hostages after a tip-off from the US authorities, details have emerged that the Pakistani military acted only after it was put on notice by the US leadership that should it fail to act, a US Navy SEALs team was ready to raid Pakistan to rescue the hostages in a manner similar to the assault which liquidated Laden. While the Pakistan’s Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor claimed that an encounter had taken place to free the hostages in the tribal area, locals and international publications reported that the so-called rescue was more of a release and took place in the settled area between Kurram agency and the military garrison town of Kohat, which is the home to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Selection Board. The DG ISPR also claimed that the couple was held in Afghanistan for five years after capture.
After the diplomatic niceties and messages of thanks from the Trump administration waned, CIA director Mike Pompeo busted the ISPR by openly stating that the couple had been held hostage inside Pakistan for five years. Coleman has also spoken out and has categorically stated, “We were not crossing into Pakistan that day. We had been in Pakistan for more than a year at that point.” While she disputed the US’s claims too, her account corroborates, by and large, what the CIA director has stated. Details of her captivity also mirror the happenings on the ground in North Waziristan and fit same pattern as the accounts of other HQN hostages such as the New York Times correspondent David Rhode.
The whole episode goes to show that: Kurram agency and surrounding areas are home to the HQN; Pakistan will dillydally till the moment it does not have choice left; Pakistan is fully aware of the whereabouts of the HQN leadership; and Pakistan can leverage the HQN when it so desires.
The US leadership must therefore, demand not just pushing of the HQN and the Taliban cadres over to the Afghan side but also for Pakistan to handover their leadership. Barring such concrete steps, Pakistan is unlikely to wind up its jihadist project in Afghanistan. While the HQN is but one part of the Afghan problem, its expertise in carrying out complex terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan make it the most ominous one.
With the increased training and support function of the US forces in Afghanistan, redeployment of the US air support for the Afghan security forces and a hunt-and-kill role for the CIA, the US is getting its ducks in a row. However, so long as the leadership of the Taliban and its sword arm, i.e., the HQN, enjoys sanctuary in Pakistan, all such efforts might prove futile. An iron fist under the US velvet glove must remain ready to achieve the desired results.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist.