We're Live Bangla Thursday, June 01, 2023

Haqqanis imposing their radical will on Afghanistan

The Radical Network With A Penchant For Suicide Bombings Is Edging Out A More Moderate And Diplomatic Faction Inside The Taliban

Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani during his first public appearance since coming to power under Taliban rule, March 6, 2022. Photo: Twitter

When Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani showed up at a police trainee ceremony on March 6, the warlord turned politician’s first public media appearance made global headlines and sparked new speculation about the emerging post-war balance of power inside the country.

While the notorious Haqqani network leader is still officially wanted by the US FBI on terror accusations, the minister’s stepping out from the shadows showed to some his radical faction’s strengthening hold over the Taliban-led government after seizing power by force last August.

The Haqqani network’s fighters were crucial to the Taliban’s military victory and represent the government’s most war-hardened, semi-autonomous faction. The network has been blamed for some of the deadliest attacks during the war, including through its frequent and wanton use of suicide bombers, and is known for maintaining close ties with terror group al Qaeda.

While a Taliban faction led by Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Bardar has professed the Taliban 2.0 government will be more “moderate” than its previous radical regime overthrown by invading US forces, it’s not clear to most analysts and observers that Sirajuddin and other Haqqani networks in top government positions share that view.

Those opposed views were on display for the world to see when a major row broke out between Taliban leaders just days after they set up their new Islamic Emirate” government in Kabul. News reports at the time indicated the rival factions came to physical blows over who did more to secure victory over the US and how power would be distributed in a new cabinet.

The Taliban denied the reports at the time but Bardar appeared to go to ground for several days after the incident. In-country analysts and seasoned observers say that several months later the Haqqani network’s representatives now have the upper hand over Bardar’s more moderate clique and are slowly but surely imposing their more radical vision for the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Bardar is locked in an intra-Taliban power struggle with the Haqqani network. Photo: Agencies

Although Afghanistan’s economic situation is dire, with the United Nations estimating as many as 23 million Afghans faced “acute hunger” as of February 2022, the country is as politically stable as it has been in decades with the Haqqanis at the de facto helm of the Islamic regime with few armed rivals left in the wings.

Read Also: Taliban ban Afghan women from flying without male relative

“Indeed, political stability under the Haqqanis was the message given via the optics of the passing out ceremony, which is otherwise an insignificant event within the broader context of Afghanistan’s post-withdrawal scenario,” said Shah Farman, a Kabul-based journalist and activist who now lives in Pakistan due to fears for his personal security.

Sirajuddin Haqqani did not say anything about the nation’s famine crisis at the event. By most accounts, the Taliban’s leadership has no idea how to steer the country from war to peace and prevent its sanction-imposed economic crisis into becoming a humanitarian one.

“Increasing lack of food and lack of money is affecting everyone in Afghanistan, including the Taliban field commanders and its common fighters and their own families,” according to a former Ashraf Ghani administration interior ministry official who requested anonymity due to security concerns.

The situation has forced these commanders and hold-over fighters into extracting money from common Afghans, “misconduct” that Sirajuddin Haqqani himself referred to in his speech, which was reportedly attended by several foreign diplomats including from China and Pakistan.

The minister said that Taliban commanders and fighters were now undergoing “governance” training and that he is personally overseeing the process, which, as Shah Farman claimed, “only means that more and more Taliban fighters are being converted to the Haqqani network’s ideology of continuous jihad.”

The Haqqani network is increasing its strength not only to consolidate its grip over Afghanistan but also to systematically marginalize Bardar’s group, which has led the Taliban’s diplomacy with the outside world including key players like China and Russia, analysts said.

With Sirajuddin Haqqani controlling the powerful interior ministry, which significantly has authority over the police, his group can influence the extent to which the government acts against the transnational terror groups still in the country, including the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and al Qaeda.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters on the march in Afghanistan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

China, Russia and the West have all pressed the Taliban to rein in the groups and prevent the country from becoming a haven of transnational terrorism. Those powers are withholding their official diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime until it demonstrates it intends to act against the terror outfits.  

Even though the Taliban has officially maintained that it does not support these terror groups and that Afghan territory will not be allowed to be used to attack other countries, “that there has been no meaningful action against any of these groups only shows the Haqqani network’s ability to shape policies,” said the former Ghani administration official.

“Most commanders and fighters controlling key military installations in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan belong to the Haqqani network,” he added.

That means that it is almost “entirely with the Haqqanis to decide what action they take, if at all, at what time and how,” according to Shah Farman.

Considering the Haqqanis’ long support for global jihad, few expect them to take any meaningful action – even though suppressing the groups is key to restoring desperately needed foreign aid and winning recognition from much of the international community.

With the Haqqani network now controlling key ministries including interior and culture, it can combine its policy of protecting transnational jihadi networks with the promotion of radical ideology and systematic suppression of any rival doctrines or ideas against the creation of a shariah law-dominated Islamic state.

For instance, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, Afghanistan’s current minister for information and culture, is a graduate of the Haqqaniya madrassa notorious for training militants and considered a founding father of the Taliban. He spent 12 years in Guantanamo Bay detention at the hands of the US before he was released in 2014 in a prisoner exchange.

Now in government, Khairkhwa has been instrumental in suppressing news and public opinion that could be shaped by independent media reporting. A recent Human Rights Watch report showed that journalists based outside of Kabul have to share their reports with the provincial Directorate of Information and Culture before publication. 

The Haqqani-led ministry is also imposing media guidelines that require newspapers and news channels to adhere to the principles and beliefs of the newly formed “Islamic Emirate.“ Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, recently told journalists that they should only publish material that considers “national interests, Islamic values, and national unity.”

“According to this guideline, there is no way reporters can report anything related to how the Haqqanis are in control or how transnational jihadi groups are being protected,” said Shah Farman.

One key difference between the Haqqani network and Bardar’s more moderate camp has been that the former believe that it was their struggle, rather than talks held and agreements made in Doha, that forced the US out of Afghanistan.

That explains why when the Haqqanis arrived in Kabul and occupied the presidential palace, they saw it as their victory over the US and their backed Afghan national forces, according to Mahmudullah, a former Kabul-based journalist who saw this happen first hand.

“The Haqqanis were the ones to capture the symbolic seat of power” and they were able to consolidate this further “by capturing some key ministries,” Mahmudullah added.

Having survived its first few months in power and with the West now largely focused on Russia’s Ukraine war, the Haqqanis now clearly see an opportunity to project themselves as the de facto ruling elite of Afghanistan.

“Their influence was largely underrated until now. Sirajuddin’s appearance and [head of state] Haibatullah Akhundzada’s continuous absence shows formally who is in charge here,” said the former Ghani administration official. “Their influence runs deep,” he added.

Despite broad Taliban talk of moderation, the Haqqanis are the epitome of radical. Analysts note Sirajuddin Haqqani has openly celebrated with the families of suicide bombers deployed to devastating effect during the war.

Sirajuddin Haqqani’s US FBI wanted poster. Photo: fbi.gov

Of course, the Taliban and Haqqanis need money to govern. With the US recently relaxing some of its sanctions including on aid distribution and allowing the Taliban access to part of around $9.5 billion frozen in US banks and institutions, foreign money and aid is again starting to flow into Afghanistan.

However, the Haqqanis are strategically placed to benefit from that shift. Kahlil ur Rehman Haqqani is the minister for refugees, which is directly involved in channeling aid into Afghanistan via international agencies including the UN.

“With aid flowing via the Haqqanis now, the group can only celebrate its by default internationally supported leadership of Afghanistan,” said Mahmudullah, who, for one, sees a dim future in Afghanistan for anyone hoping for moderate and inclusive rule.