A New Wave of Spectacular Attacks

by Joshua Foust on 2/19/2010 · 10 comments

Arguably the worst problem in Afghanistan is the Haqqani Network. While Mullah Omar has at least dropped the hint that he wouldn’t continue to be such a despicable jackass once foreign troops leave Afghanistan, the Haqqanis have not. While there is copious evidence that Omar’s group has soured or at least grown cool toward al Qaeda, there remains equally copious evidence the Haqqanis have not.

The Haqqanis are also the deadliest force operating in Afghanistan today. They are responsible for basically all the spectacular attacks on Kabul, as well as several others (especially in Khost City and Gardez). Their fighters tend to be better shots, better at planting undiscoverable IEDs, and better at behaving strategically with their operations. They also, as Thomas Ruttig mentions in the excellent (so far!) Decoding the Taliban, have a thing for revenge attacks:

“Today, Haqqani’s fight might be increasingly motivated by feelings of revenge. During various bombing raids and predator drone attacks against his houses and madrasas, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, starting in early 2002 and with the latest strike on 23 October 2008 on his madrasa in Danday Darkhapel near Miramshah, many of his family members, among them women and infants, and students lost their lives.”

We can bring this into very recent events. The CIA outfit at Camp Chapman was directing the much-praised Obama drone campaign against the Haqqani Network in Northwest Pakistan; when the base, which is based in Khost, a major target of the Haqqani Network, was bombed, killing several CIA officers who were running the anti-Haqqani campaign, there couldn’t have been a clearer connection… especially since, in the weeks following the bombing drone strikes against Haqqani targets increased dramatically.

The Haqqani Network also enjoy demi-official support and protection from the ISI. Notably, while the Pakistani services have arrested several members of the “original Taliban” within Pakistan, they have left the Haqqanis untouched. Until now.

MIRANSHAH: A son of al-Qaeda-linked warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose network is fighting in Afghanistan, has been killed in a US missile attack in Pakistan, officials said on Friday.

The death of Mohammed Haqqani, who was involved in the Afghan network, in an attack thought to have been targeting his father will be a symbolic blow to the Haqqani leadership and a further boost for the controversial US drone war.

He died when a US plane fired two missiles into a compound and vehicle on Thursday in the Dandey Darpa Khel area of North Waziristan, a Haqqani bastion in the lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border, a Pakistani official said.

This is all well and good—and I expect the usual suspects to crowe about how this is evidence of Obama’s inherent toughness and awesome. But think about what this precedent means: we are, basically, in a punching contest with the Haqqanis. For the most part, their punches against us and Afghanistan land much harder than ours against them: despite the dramatic increase in drone strikes in Haqqani territory, places like Khost and eastern Paktia have become more and more dangerous.

In other words, a mere tit-for-tat with the Haqqani Netowk is actually a losing game for the United States. The Haqqanis won’t be cowed by drone strikes, and we’re bleeding really hard from their retaliation. Killing a brother or son or wife here and there—let us not forget, along with incinerating dozens and dozens of innocent women and children along the way—comes at a cost we cannot sustain indefinitely. The strategy, it seems, is to hope really hard that either Jalaluddin or Sirajuddin will walk in front of a Predtor so we can knock him off and declare victory. But does that make any sense? Our current approach has pretty obviously done little to reduce the cross-border violence or the Haqqani Network’s reach; surely at this point we should have come up with something beyond “kill his children until he relents?”

However that turns up, by this point in the game we have a pattern very firmly established: in the next month or two, there will be a major attack inside Afghanistan in retaliation. And it will kill a lot more innocent people. And we will rinse and repeat and wonder why we’ve made so little progress.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Joe Harlan February 19, 2010 at 11:04 am

Some interesting points here, I think.

How much of their support (financial, materiel) support is from Pakistan? I suspect quite a bit of it. Also, do they have a “10 dollar Taliban” structure or are the fighters more ideologically motivated?

anan February 19, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Joe, they do have the $10/day Taliban and plenty of cash to pay them. However, Sirajjudin also has hardened cadre killing and wounding ANSF/ISAF in large numbers. The hardened cadre are the real threat.

203 ANA is more in the lead than any other ANA Corps. ISAF forces in its battlespace have implemented “Combined Action”, which is the embedded partnership of Coalition Forces with the Afghan National Army, Police and Border Police. This means integrating headquarters at each level to more rapidly develop
the Afghan capacity to command and control their forces at each level. A slice of RC-East/CJTF-82 HQ commanded by DCG BG Fuller is at the tactical headquarters of 203d ANA Corps. This operates similar to a joint HQs that coordinates all 203 ANA and RC-East/CJTF-82 assets in 203 ANA’s battlespace. BG Fuller is both the lead ISAF/RC-East advisor for 203 ANA Corps; AND coordinates all RC-East assets in the battle-space.

One way to think of this is that ISAF or more precisely RC-East is embedded in 203 ANA and fights through them. The war is between 203 ANA Corps (commanded by Major General Abdul Khaliq) and Sirajjudin Haqqani for Loya Paktia.

Hopefully, soon, the same could be said for the other 5 numbered ANA Corps. [111 Kabul Capital Division will not have the opportunity to be in the lead in Kabul; because the MoI already is.]

anan February 19, 2010 at 11:55 am

“The Haqqanis are also the deadliest force operating in Afghanistan today. ” I would say one of the two deadliest forces. The forces in Nuristan being the other deadly force. There, LeT, LeJ, AQ, Uzbeks, Uighars, may be operating independently of Sirajuddin.

In Loya Paktia; it seems to me that the deadly forces–which have embedded foreign fighters–are generally used to attack ISAF/ANSF away from population centers; or for the somewhat infrequent commando attacks such as the ones in Kabul. It looks like Haqqani tries to prevent his foreign allies from interacting with locals too much.

Are Haqqani’s local Taliban fighters that interact with the locals lower quality than his hardcore fighting cadre which have foreign fighters? Seems to be the case.

Sirajuddin seems to spend a lot of his time in Paktika; rather than Khost/Paktia. The ANSF in Paktika are less formidable than their Khost/Paktia counterparts.

The solution to Siraj Haqqani seems simple enough. Resource 203rd ANA Corps. 203 ANA Corps has been starved at the expense of 205 and 215 ANA. The formation of 4th bde for the Corps has been delayed several times (for the creation of 111st Kabul capital division, for the creation of “6th” battalions for existing ANA bdes, for the creation of 3-207 ANA, for the creation of 4th combat companies for existing ANA combat bns, for the creation of 215th ANA Corps). In addition to that; 2-203 Bde (HQed in Sharon , Paktika) still hasn’t received its 6th bn (or 4th combat bn.) There remains no reporting of 203 ANA’s 11 combat bns receiving their 4th combat companies. So far the combat bns coming out of regional training centers have been headed South.

This is puzzling because the ANA now trains 7 thousand new recruits a month.

The ANP have also under resourced Loya Paktia. Its not like there aren’t many anti Taliban Pashtuns in Loya Paktia who wouldn’t love to defend their communities from Sirajuddin.

DePetris February 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm

It seems that covert-operations inside Pakistan’s tribal frontier would be a much more effective way of going after the Haqqani’s than a barrage of drone-strikes; especially considering that the secret drone program is now as public as ever. Like Josh said, every drone-strike on an Al’Qaeda and Pakistani compound seems to kill innocent people caught in the crossfire, thereby generating the so-called resentment that fuels the Haqqani network. Why not a concerted special-op’s campaign (partnering with the ISI) to root out the network and go-after Sirajuddin and Jalaluddin?

And get this…we can give the Pakistanis full credit if the operation is successful. This would at least solve some of their issues about sovereignty.

anan February 19, 2010 at 2:07 pm

DePetris, I think first add 15 combat companies to 203 ANA’s existing three combat bdes. Then form 4-203 Bde by partly by pilfering 1-203, 2-203, 3-203. Then use the elite 1-203 (probably the best bde in the ANA) and the ANA commandos east of the Durand line against the Haqqanis. Suspect many in North Waziristan hate Sirajuddin and would welcome the 43% Pashtun ANA.

There is one problem with the commandos, however. Some of the commando bns don’t have enough Pashtuns, and an even larger shortage of Pashtun field officers. As a result, it might be better to use 1-203 ANA.

DePetris February 19, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Anan, your battle strategy is duly noted. Whatever the United States chooses to do, I hope they stick with relatively small units in the hunt for Haqqani. The last thing the U.S Military needs is a large-scale presence in a country that is historically ambivalent and suspicious of western interests. This is precisely why the Pakistani ISI should be in the lead, with American backup and guidance. At least we can agree that Washington is relying to heavily on drone-attacks, most of which kill innocent civilians in the process.

Sailani February 19, 2010 at 3:31 pm

It would be interesting to debate to what extent Khost city is effectively besieged once more (as in the Muj time) since there are so many districts now where the writ of the government does not extend. The ANA and their US partners are competent in Khost, but the communities in the districts are still not in a position to support them openly since their presence is not persistent. The ANP generally does more harm than good as most places, and that adds to the friction between the population and the government. Of course the government itself is not very tangible when the province has been without a governor and a chief of police since September 2009!

We’re also seeing increasing numbers of TTP now in Khost, which is not an encouraging trend as they are much less hesitant to inflict major civilian casualties (Haqqani is pretty careful to focus his attacks on government and the security forces).

The security forces tried to reach out to Haqqani’s tribe with a major gathering of several hundred elders recently, but it more or less backfired when the senior ANA representative (down from Kabul along with General Rodriguez) kept going on about his own heroic fight against the “evil Taliban”, and the virtues of Ahmad Shah Masood (all this was in Dari of course!).

anan February 22, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Sailani, what happened in Khost is the redirection of ANSF from Loya Paktia to the South and West.

203 ANA was suppose to get its 4th combat brigade in 2009. This was delayed to:
1) Create “6th battalions” for existing ANA brigades
2) Create 3rd Bde, 207th ANA Corps (decision was made in 2008 . . . when the West was deteriorating fast; since then the West has improved)
3) Create 111th Kabul Capital Division (out of 4-201 bde)
4) create a 4th ANA combat company per combat battalion
5) Expand 3-205 ANA bde to 215th ANA Corps

This as well as because “the province has been without a governor and a chief of police since September 2009” are responsible for the deterioration of the police.

“The ANP generally does more harm than good as most places, and that adds to the friction between the population and the government.” Could you please clarify in a Khost context? It seems to me that the Khost ANP fight better than the ANP do almost anywhere else in Afghanistan. The ANP has repulsed commando attacks in Khost.

How would you rate the Khost tribal confederacies?

“We’re also seeing increasing numbers of TTP now in Khost, which is not an encouraging trend as they are much less hesitant to inflict major civilian casualties (Haqqani is pretty careful to focus his attacks on government and the security forces).”

Sirajuddin and TTP seem linked at the hip to me. Siraj uses TTP to launch attacks against targets in a way that he thinks gives him plausible deniability. I think Siraj lies when he claims not to support these TTP (and Punjabi Taliban) operations.

Siraj strikes me as the ringleader of the vicious intertwined Pakistani Taliban, Punjabi Taliban, foreign Takfiri, and Loya Paktia Taliban snake.

How do you think Khost residents view the Taliban? Previous data points suggest that Khost is pretty anti Taliban and contributes a lot of recruits to the ANA and ANP.

Paktika and Ghor seem to be Sirajuddin strongholds. The Taliban seem to have considerable popular support in these two provinces (which are also part of 203 ANA Corps’ battlespace.) The ANP in Paktika and Ghor are far less capable than the ANP in Paktia and Khost. Sirajaddin seems to spend a lot of time in Paktika.

Madhu February 19, 2010 at 4:05 pm

You are on a roll these days. Wow.

The points you make about a tit-for-tat punching contest are sobering. As long as the network enjoys de facto support “across the way”, the whole thing is just dragging us into the South Asia Grand Game as a minor player. And the corner of it we are currently playing into has been an ongoing “periodic flare-ups on top of low-grade smouldering” since about 1947….

Good Afghan February 22, 2010 at 12:24 am

Mullah Omar doesn’t exist – it is an ISI creation. Haqqani network is a bunch of Pakistani servants. They have been since the Soviet Invasion. Shame on them for their betrayal of Afghanistan.

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