The infamous Afghan insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, has died. Haqqani was the leader of the militant network that still bares his name. He was a senior jihadist military leader that had taken up arms to fight against political leaders in Afghanistan years before the United States and its allies—or even the Soviets—had stepped foot in the country.
In truth, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s death is unlikely to have much military impact. The aging jihadist had ceded control of his Haqqani network to his son Sirajuddin Haqqani some ten years ago.
What Haqqani’s passing does is highlight some of the key dynamics in the region. These are decades-old trends that are still affecting the War in Afghanistan today. Now more than ever, these factors are extremely influential in America’s foreign policy.
A Prestigious Career of Militancy
The Afghan Taliban announced Haqqani’s death on 4 September. The obituary, fraught with praise for the old warlord, underscores just how respected Haqqani was amongst militant circles, even outside his own organization. Commander Haqqani was the lynchpin of transnational jihadist terror, with a deadly career spanning 45 years. Born in 1939 in Afghanistan, Haqqani was ordained as an Islamic scholar in Nowshera, Pakistan in 1970 at the Dar-ul-uloom Haqqaniah madrassa. It was from this school that Haqqani took his name. The young and ambitious Jalaluddin got his first political experience early under the patron and principal of his seminary, Maulana Abdul Haq. Commander Haq was an essential part in contesting the elections for Pakistan’s national assembly of 1970. Haqqani participated in campaigning for his teacher during this period.
Haqqani was soon enlisted by the Pakistani army, which around the same time was looking to counter Afghanistan’s support for the separatist Pashtun nationalist movement. This was the beginning of Haqqani’s long lived antagonism toward Afghan governments. The trend amongst Afghan political leaders was secularization. Thus their support for nationalist movements. Haqqani much preferred Pakistan’s political tactics with its Islamist bent. Pakistani leaders appealed to religious bonds as opposed to ethnic or tribal ones. This was more Haqqani’s language, a man who didn’t care much for cross-national distinctions (the wife from which his heir Sirajuddin was born was an Arab woman).
Later that decade, Haqqani became involved in the fighting in the Soviet-Afghanistan War. In 1978, Russia invaded Afghanistan to assist the Afghan communist revolution headed by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Haqqani had several things going for him in his fight against the Soviets. First off, he was already a well- known religious personality with solid credentials. Second and more important, the Pakistanis had allowed Haqqani to set up shop in the tribal region known as North Waziristan (he had even established his own seminary Manba’-al-uloom in the Waziristan district). This location, straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border, gave Haqqani and his men the perfect location from which to launch attacks—while simultaneously being harbored by the Pakistani state.
It was during these years that the “network” element of the Haqqani Network really flourished. Commander Jalaluddin began to make connections with both regional and Western partners that would have consequences for years to come. A fluent Arabic speaker, Haqqani reached out to the Saudis and other Gulf states, which showered him with money and resources.
But Haqqani really hit the jackpot after endearing himself to the United States. Eager to clamp down on the Soviets wherever they were operating on the global scene, American leaders found a natural ally in Haqqani. Largely at the recommendation of Pakistani intelligence, American money began flowing to the Haqqani Network. Weapons also came, including the game-changing Stinger missiles that allowed ground troops to down the menacing Soviet helicopters. The close relationship between America and Haqqani during the period was personified by the sensational Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson who spearheaded much of the efforts in Washington to arm Afghan militants. The dealings between Wilson and the Haqqanis were the stuff of a Hollywood saga (and was made into one in 2007). Wilson visited the militants in Afghanistan during the war and oversaw the transfer of weapons to Haqqani’s men, dubbing the group’s commander “goodness personified.”
What the Americans did not foresee at that time was the trouble they were sowing for themselves by backing Haqqani. The commander attracted many Muslim volunteers to his ranks from all over South Asia, the Middle East, and the Gulf. Osama bin Laden and the core group of fighters that would found al-Qaeda were among them. Haqqani’s support was vital in getting al-Qaeda established in South Asia and his patronage was essential for the group’s early development. The fact that many if not most of bin Laden’s lieutenants were trained in Haqqani camps and received battle experience fighting for the group underscores just how much al-Qaeda was an outgrowth of the Haqqani Network. So yes, the American funding of Haqqani’s militants in Afghanistan during the 1980s did indirectly contribute to al-Qaeda’s creation. Although, there is no evidence that policymakers or intelligence officials cooperated face-to-face with bin Laden.
A more important layover from Haqqani’s early years is the Pakistan issue. This point continues to have actual effects on U.S. policy toward the country. Pakistan has long been in the crosshairs of the Trump administration for not delivering when it comes to cracking down on extremism. What is important to remember, and what the story of Jalaluddin Haqqani reminds us of, is that this trend in Pakistan is not new. The country has been backing militants for literally decades. The Islamist tendencies of the country are so deeply entrenched, it almost doesn’t matter who is at the top of the leadership hierarchy. As the most recent State Department Country Report on Terrorism lays out, every level of the Pakistani state is utilized by militant and Islamist factions to promote their causes. This ranges from funneling money to radical schooling institutions, to harboring actual militant fighters on their soil.
The death of the most influential jihadist commander of the century should remind us of the nature of the long war being fought against extremism: actions in this space have long-term consequences that are almost always impossible to foresee. The patterns we observe and have to deal with today have deep roots.