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Haqqanis Steering Deadlier Taliban in Afghanistan, Officials Say

The closer integration of the feared Haqqani militant network into the leadership of the Taliban is changing the flow of the Afghan insurgency this year, with the Haqqanis' senior leader increasingly calling the shots in the Taliban's offensive, Afghan and American officials say.

The Haqqanis have refined a signature brand of urban terrorist attacks and cultivated a sophisticated international fund-raising network, factoring prominently in the United States military's push to keep troops in Afghanistan. Just last month, the Haqqanis were believed to be behind a truck bomb attack in Kabul that killed 64 people and wounded hundreds.

Now, the group's growing role in leading the entire insurgency has raised concerns about an even deadlier year of fighting ahead, as hopes of peace talks have collapsed. The shift is also raising tensions with the Pakistani military, which American and Afghan officials accuse of sheltering the Haqqanis as a proxy group.

Though it has always nominally been a branch of the Taliban, the Haqqani network was seen as largely autonomous. But the selection of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group's chief, to become the deputy leader of the Taliban during a leadership struggle last summer has turned out to be far from a symbolic move, officials say.

"Sirajuddin increasingly runs the day-to-day military operations for the Taliban, and, we believe, is likely involved in appointing shadow governors," said Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, the chief spokesman for United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Senior Afghan security officials say Mr. Haqqani brings to the Taliban a more applied and lethal military expertise than the supreme leader of the group, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.

Mullah Mansour has been consumed with a campaign to quell dissent against his leadership, and he is said to have limited his movements and access since a reported attack on his life in Quetta, Pakistan. Accordingly, Mr. Haqqani has stepped in, at times even running meetings of the Taliban leadership council, according to senior Afghan security officials.

One senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the leadership, said Mr. Haqqani had been in "constant contact" with Taliban field commanders in the south and the north of the country, in addition to his stronghold in the southeast. For any big surge of fighters or change of plans, the field commanders have to contact Mr. Haqqani, the commander said.

Mawlawi Sardar Zadran, a former Haqqani commander in eastern Afghanistan, said Mr. Haqqani had a central role in appointing Taliban governors. "No one can be appointed without his advice," he said. "The influence of Sirajuddin in the Taliban ranks seems to be just growing."

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed Mr. Haqqani's elevated role, saying it was because of "his bravery."

"We can say that not only his military obligations but all his obligations have increased," Mr. Mujahid said.

As the insurgency increasingly takes a mafia-like shape, relying heavily on drug trafficking, according to the United Nations, the Haqqani network's leaders also bring another vital resource: a proven fund-raising network. That, coupled with the Taliban's manpower and territorial command, helps ensure a more diverse cash flow for the insurgency.

Over the past 30 years, the Haqqanis have developed complex streams of funding, according to analysts. In addition to extortion and ransom-seeking, they also have diverse business investments in several countries through front companies.

The Haqqani network's closer integration with the Taliban command also creates awkwardness for the Obama administration, and is raising tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The State Department officially listed the Haqqanis as a terrorist group in 2012, and there is a $5 million American bounty on Sirajuddin Haqqani. (The department's Rewards for Justice Program describes him as 43 years old and 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a complexion that is "light, with wrinkles.")

But the Afghan Taliban, as a group, have remained off that terrorist list, partly to ease the prospect of starting peace talks between them and the Afghan government — a process that American officials have been centrally involved in. With the clear and public integration of the Haqqanis into the Taliban leadership over at least the past year, American officials have essentially been unable to dodge the claim that they are trying to broker talks with terrorists.

The Haqqani network, which traces its origin to the 1980s guerrilla war against the Soviets that was backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, is seen as having close links with the Pakistani military spy service, Inter-Services Intelligence, known as ISI.

Indeed, some senior Afghan officials say the Pakistani military was central to bringing the Haqqanis more closely into the Taliban during the insurgency's leadership councils last summer, which were held in Quetta.

The United States contributes billions of dollars of aid to the Pakistani command, and American officials have pushed Pakistani officials to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table and ease the insurgent campaign in Afghanistan. But at the same time, the insurgency's top leaders still find shelter in Pakistan, and a sweeping anti-militant operation by the Pakistani military in 2014 seemed to put no dent in the Haqqani group's operations, casting doubt on Pakistan's claims that it had distanced itself from the terrorist group.

"The ISI brought Sirajuddin as the deputy to the Taliban to give him protection, so if the peace talks get serious, the Americans wouldn't be able to say, 'We will make peace with the leader but not with the deputy,' " said Rahmatullah Nabil, Afghanistan's former intelligence chief who now runs a charity for wounded Afghan soldiers.

Mr. Nabil said that the merger had been helped by the fact that the Haqqanis were struggling financially, after their chief fund-raiser was gunned down near Islamabad in 2013, and that the Taliban needed Mr. Haqqani's expertise in waging complex attacks.

Even as American and Afghan officials have demanded that Pakistan do what it can to limit the insurgent offensive this year, there has been little obvious result. The Taliban command or contest large swaths of Afghan territory, threaten important provincial capitals and, through the Haqqanis' bombing campaign, continue to create carnage and fear in Kabul, the capital.

"We have pressed the government of Pakistan on its commitment not to discriminate among terrorist groups," Ambassador Richard Olson, the United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a congressional hearing after the attack in Kabul last month. "Pakistan is at a strategic crossroads — I think it needs to make a choice."

[Source: By Mujib Mashal, The New York Times, Kabul, 07May16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 19May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.