Haqqani’s death will have little impact on war in Afghanistan
An Afghan Taliban statement last week announced that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder and leader of the Haqqani network, the most potent faction of the Taliban, had died.
Haqqani was a dominant figure in Afghanistan’s recent history of insurgency and militancy. He helped lead efforts to fight the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, when he received ample support from Pakistan — and the US. Ronald Reagan described him as a freedom fighter, while Congressman Charlie Wilson famously called him “goodness personified.”
He later launched the Haqqani network and redirected his attention to another foreign military in Afghanistan. Washington has implicated the Haqqani network in some of the most deadly and sophisticated attacks on Americans during the ongoing 17-year-long US war there. Today, it is arguably the South Asian terror group of greatest concern to US policymakers. It is also a big reason for the current tensions in US-Pakistan relations, as Washington accuses Islamabad of giving it a safe haven; an allegation repeatedly denied by Islamabad.
And yet, despite Haqqani’s great stature, his death won’t weaken the Haqqani network or its parent Taliban organization, and it won’t impact the war in Afghanistan more broadly. That says a lot about the intensity of the war, the strength of the militants that drive it, and the paucity of US policy.
Haqqani, according to multiple reports, had been seriously ill for many years. Control of the organization bearing his name had long been transferred to his powerful son, Sirajuddin, who is currently the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban. Haqqani may have continued to be a powerful figure symbolically in his final years, but he had long since become a non-factor tactically and operationally.
Despite Haqqani’s death, the key drivers of the war and the factors behind the insurgency’s strength remain firmly in place. These include a weak, divided and unpopular Afghan government; beleaguered and overmatched Afghan security forces; a flourishing drug trade that helps finance the insurgents; a Taliban sanctuary in next-door Pakistan; and the lack of anything resembling an effective US strategy.
The death of Haqqani has done nothing to reverse the ever-strengthening momentum of the insurgency in Afghanistan or the overall dynamic of a worsening war.
Recent developments may, at first glance, appear to suggest the tables are turning. The Taliban’s decision earlier this year to honor a brief truce for the first time raised hopes that the insurgents may be willing to entertain the idea of peace. Additionally, the US — significantly, with Afghanistan’s full support — has agreed to pursue direct talks with the Taliban. The insurgents have long said they won’t stop fighting until they’re given the opportunity to negotiate directly with, and only with, the Americans.
But we shouldn’t become overly optimistic. The Taliban declined Kabul’s recent request for another truce. Additionally, while Washington has agreed to talk directly with the Taliban, its intention is to use those talks only as a springboard for more comprehensive and formal negotiations between the insurgents and the Afghan government. This is an arrangement the Taliban has said it won’t accept.
Meanwhile, the trend lines on the battlefield are deeply troubling. Not only are Taliban fighters carrying out bombings on a seemingly daily basis, but they are also mounting ferocious offensives. The insurgents are increasingly taking their fight directly into Afghanistan’s urban spaces; most recently, they briefly took control of government facilities in the cities of Farah and Ghazni. There is reason to fear that, when the Taliban honored that brief truce earlier this year, enabling its fighters to openly mingle in cities, it used that period to gather intelligence that facilitated its recent urban-based assaults.
Afghan and American forces, fully aware they can’t win the war militarily, can only hope they will somehow launch a peace process. But, even with Washington agreeing to engage the Taliban in talks, the emboldened insurgents have little incentive to stop fighting. In other words, the death of Haqqani has done nothing to reverse the ever-strengthening momentum of the insurgency or the overall dynamic of a worsening war.
Haqqani’s death does raise an interesting question about timing. He had been ill for many years, and some reports even suggest he died many years ago. And yet the Taliban formally announced his death on September 3 of this year — just a few days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to arrive in Islamabad for talks with Pakistan’s new government.
Was the timing of his death announcement purely coincidental? Quite possibly. Or was there something more calculated at play? One can’t rule that out either.
In recent years, the deaths of terrorist leaders in the region — including Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mohammed Omar — have provoked institutional crises within the organizations they led. Yet Haqqani’s demise should have little impact on his network, or on the war it is waging.
That reality bodes ill for Afghanistan, its allies and stability on the whole.
- Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman