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by Jeremy Page and Zahid Hussain
Published by: The Times
Date: June 28, 2010
In the year before the Soviet Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was one Mujahidin leader in particular who frustrated the efforts of General Boris Gromov, the Soviet commander.
He was Jalaluddin Haqqani, an ethnic Pashtun once described as “goodness personified” by Charlie Wilson, the US congressman who helped to fund CIA support for the Afghan resistance. From his base in northern Pakistan, Haqqani hounded Soviet troops, strung out several rounds of failed negotiations and thwarted the last big Soviet offensive, Operation Magistral, in 1987-88.
Today, Wilson is dead and General Gromov has turned to Russian politics. But Haqqani remains the figurehead of a militant army, now led by his eldest son, Sirajuddin, that is considered al-Qaeda’s main ally in the region — and as much of a threat to Nato forces as it was to the Soviets.
As a deadline looms for US troops to start withdrawing next year, the “Haqqani network”, as it is known, is playing as central a role in deciding the future of Afghanistan as it did in 1988. “The big question now is how to deal with the Haqqanis, and that’s where the US and Pakistan disagree,” one Western official familiar with operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan said.
The US publicly stepped up pressure on Pakistan this month to attack the tribal region of North Waziristan, which the Haqqanis and their al-Qaeda allies use as a haven. Pakistan is resisting, arguing that the Haqqanis do not attack Pakistani targets and proposing to mediate between them and President Karzai in Afghanistan. “If they feel we have influence there, then we’ll try to make those contacts alive,” a senior Pakistani security official told The Times. “There are other options without a large-scale military operation in North Waziristan.”
The two strategies reflect the divergent interests of the US and Pakistan as they and other regional powers try to shape the outcome of the war. America is focused on destroying al-Qaeda and its allies, but Pakistan is fighting militants who attack its own territory — at the same time as using others to prevent a pro-Indian government taking power in Afghanistan.
The US made its case in a recent meeting between General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, and three top US military commanders — General Stanley McChrystal, who was dismissed last week, General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command who has replaced him, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Americans presented General Kayani with evidence that the Haqqanis were responsible for attacks, including one this month on the Nato airbase at Bagram and another in Kabul.
“You cannot allow poisonous snakes to have a nest in your backyard, even if the tacit agreement is that they’re going to bite the neighbours’ kids instead of yours,” General Petraeus told a congressional hearing afterwards. “Eventually, they turn around and bite you and your kids.”
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, asked about the Haqqanis on a visit to Pakistan last week, said: “There’s no difference between us and the United States on our sense of the situation.”
Yet Pakistan remains reluctant to attack North Waziristan, saying that it wants to consolidate gains from an assault last year on neighbouring South Waziristan.
Instead, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the Inter- Services Intelligence agency (ISI), told Mr Karzai on a recent visit to Kabul that his agency was willing to broker talks with the Haqqanis, according to Western and Pakistani sources. Yesterday the al-Jazeera news network reported that Mr Karzai had met Sirajuddin, although the Afghan Government denied it. Pakistani officials deny providing funding, weapons or training to the Haqqanis, who have some 10,000 followers. Privately, they admit giving them sanctuary in North Waziristan and allowing Sirajuddin to visit the northwestern city of Peshawar.
They also admit that the Haqqanis represent their most powerful tool to offset the influence that India has gained in Afghanistan by pouring in $1 billion in aid since 2001. A senior Pakistani official said: “The ISI does not have such influence over any other Afghan Taleban commanders, many of whom do not trust Pakistan security agencies any more.”
The former Foreign Secretary David Miliband added his voice last week to those backing reconciliation, in an open letter to General Petraeus. “Engagement with those who have been involved in attacks is difficult,” he said. “But allowing space for discussion to bring people from the insurgency into Afghan society, removing the violence, is not appeasement. It is exactly what we want to achieve: the end of the war.”
General Gromov reached a similar conclusion last year on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal. His pithier verdict was: “It has been and always will be impossible to solve political problems using force.”
This House Would Not Negotiate With Terrorists.