Fighting Shadows: Why the U.S. Will Struggle to Defeat the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan

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Nishanuddin Khan / AP

An Afghan policeman bodychecks a man in Khost, Afghanistan, on Oct. 2, 2011. Security measures are tight in the country after the Afghan and coalition forces captured Haji Mali Khan, a senior Haqqani leader

In recent weeks, there has been a seemingly incessant barrage of NATO press releases coming out of Kabul, announcing the capture or death of commanders within the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. It would almost make one believe that the war on the Pakistani border is being won against this shadowy militia known for their daring and complex attacks in Kabul over the past few years. But the reality is different.

Western attention to the Haqqani network spiked a month ago when the group was blamed for a series of attacks across Kabul, the most severe of which had RPGs landing inside the heavily fortified U.S. embassy and only ended after a 20-hour gun battle. Then a week later, the group used a bomb hidden in an insurgent's turban to assassinate former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the High Peace Council, the commission charged with negotiating with the Taliban.

With Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda on the wane, the Haqqani network has offered the U.S. a new bogeyman in Afghanistan. Like bin Laden, it too is also based in Pakistan — a point emphasized late last month when Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). After Rabbani's assassination, both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. are ratcheting up pressure on the network as well as Pakistan, but many see these as ill-conceived or ineffectual efforts by an occupying power whose time is running out in Afghanistan.

Over the past year the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has said it has carried out more than 500 operations against the Haqqani network. On Sept. 30, ISAF announced what it touted as a major coup: the capture of Haji Mali Khan, whom it described as "the senior Haqqani commander in Afghanistan" and uncle of Siraj and Badruddin Haqqani, the day-to-day commanders of the fighting force and the sons of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the patriarch of the family and a former commander of a mujahedin force funded by the CIA during the war with the Soviets. ISAF says Khan "moved forces from Pakistan to Afghanistan to conduct terrorist activity," "served as an emissary" between the group and the Pakistani Taliban and "established a militant camp" inside Afghanistan along the border.

But Thomas Ruttig, a co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and expert on the Haqqani network, thinks ISAF may be crowing over very little — and still has a lot of work to do. "Mali Khan has not been one of the top five Haqqani network commanders. His name was not widely known, and he was more of local importance. In the news of his capture, I see more of an attempt to project progress in the fight against this Taliban network, as we saw a few years ago in the fight against al-Qaeda, when a number of previously unknown number fours and fives were discovered and killed or captured," says Ruttig.

Regardless of Khan's true importance, ISAF increased the frequency of its Haqqani-focused missions fourfold after his capture and claim almost every day that they are bringing down network leaders. "The Haqqani network and its safe havens remain a top priority for the Afghan and coalition force," ISAF said in a statement, adding that so far they had killed 20 leaders and captured more than 1,400 insurgents since the start of this year.

But Afghan army and police commanders on the ground in Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, the core of the network's territory on the Afghan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, have a different view. "Our police are looking for Haqqani and Taliban fighters everyday in different districts, but right now we are unable to stop the Haqqani group from crossing the border. If they come during the night, we aren't able to stop them because we don't have an air force, night vision and we lack training and high-quality weapons," says Colonel Almar Khan, a border police commander in Paktia province, part of the Haqqani heartland.

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