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Militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan are teaming up to step up attacks in the two countries
By Iqbal Khattak
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - A support network among the militants of Jalaluddin Haqqani, al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) poses greater challenges than the individual units did to the coalition forces in Afghanistan and security forces in Pakistan, analysts warn.
“There is mutual support among these groups and people to step up attacks inside Pakistan and Afghanistan”, Imtiaz Gul, director of an Islamabad-based think tank, the Centre for Research and Security Studies, told Central Asia Online by phone.
One sign of this collaboration is a video showing 32-year-old Jordanian “triple agent” Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who blew himself up at a military base in Afghanistan’s Khost province December 30, killing seven others. In the video, he appeared alongside TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud. This message reaffirmed earlier warnings from intelligence agencies about “deep links between Taliban militants and al-Qaeda with groups on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border”.
“We will never forget the blood of our Amir Baitullah Mehsud”, said al-Balawi, who wore Afghan dress in the video. Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP’s longtime leader, was killed during a missile strike in August 2009.
The Haqqani network, very active in the Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan, provided logistical support for the Jordanian suicide bomber, while al-Qaeda and the TTP played a supportive role in the mission.
Afghan and coalition forces battling the Afghan Taliban insurgency blame the Haqqani network for most of the attacks they face in southern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border.
“There is no doubt that a link between the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban exists”, said Brigadier (ret.) Mehmood Shah, former security chief in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas.
Jalaluddin Haqqani moved to North Waziristan in 1979 as a refugee after the then-Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a communist regime in Kabul.
“[Haqqani] is very articulate, understands military strategy and took little time to make a name for himself. That's why both the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] and the CIA began treating him on a par with [late Afghan commander] Ahmed Shah Masood while backing jihadi commanders against the Soviet occupation”, said Rahimullah Yusufzai, who covered the “Afghan jihad”.
In North Waziristan, Haqqani set up a guerrilla war base against the Soviet Army, established training camps and opened recruiting centres to train mujahedeen. Taking advantage of the influence clerics had in the region, Haqqani opened a madrassa to attract followers from the religious tribes of North Waziristan. Over this period, Haqqani amassed piles of weapons and money that enabled him to lead the stiffest resistance to the Soviet occupation.
A formidable base in North Waziristan made the Haqqani network the strongest group in Afghanistan’s Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. Its members are believed to have extended their activities to Ghazni; they could be responsible for attacks in Kabul, said Yusufzai.
The Afghan war brought Haqqani closer to Osama bin Laden, and bin Laden fought alongside him in the 1980s in Khost province, where the al-Qaeda chief set up a training camp.
In the beginning, the Pakistani Taliban focused on attacking government and coalition forces in Afghanistan. They found the Haqqani group a reliable partner.
“The Haqqani group is so important for the Pakistani Taliban because Haqqani serves as the umbrella for almost all shades of militants. [The Pakistani Taliban] all revere Haqqani the senior as much as they revere the al-Qaeda leadership”, Gul said.
Observers of terrorism say the Haqqani network has ties with al-Qaeda and the TTP. Each group benefits from the other on both sides of the border. Ultimately, the relationship benefits al-Qaeda more than Haqqani and the TTP by giving it logistical and other support on both sides of the border.
Haqqani earned respect among the tribesmen of North Waziristan because he is seen as “Mr. Clean”. This tag is rare among Afghan resistance leaders, whom locals accused of engaging in looting and killings after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989.
The Hafiz Gul Bahadar-led Taliban group in North Waziristan is seen as lending support to the Haqqani network in the region, and relations between Gul Bahadar and the Pakistani government have been comparatively normal, unlike those with the Hakeemullah Mehsud-led TTP. The government signed a peace agreement in North Waziristan in September 2006 with local tribes, and the Gul Bahadar-led Taliban also agreed to the terms.
This was the first such peace deal in North Waziristan. It collapsed a year later, and targeted killings of pro-government tribal elders began, driving many residents to flee.
“The militancy has brought economic activities to a standstill”, tribal journalist Umar Daraz Wazir said. “And the militancy has turned out to be an alternative employment opportunity for many jobless tribal youth”.
Some concerned observers have been pressuring Islamabad to extend Operation Rah-e-Nijat (“Path to Salvation”) to North Waziristan, where the Haqqani network and other militant groups have safe havens.
However, Mehmood Shah, the former security chief in the tribal areas, argued it would serve no purpose if “you hit [the Haqqani faction] in the tail and not the head. Unless its head is not hit hard, hitting the tail will make little difference”.