On February 20, days before the signing of a landmark deal between the US and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital, Doha, American “paper of record” The New York Times published an opinion editorial by Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Haqqani, who is also the deputy leader of the Taliban, was labelled a “specially designated global terrorist” by the US in 2008. The State Department is still offering a reward of up to $5m for information directly leading to his arrest.
The timing of the piece was not a coincidence – it appeared as the US was readying a partial truce with the Taliban that could set in motion a potential end to America’s longest war.
The newspaper’s decision to publish the article, provocatively titled “What We, the Taliban, Want,” jolted not only ordinary readers and US foreign policy hawks, but also Washington’s biggest detractors abroad. As the criticism mounted, The Times’ opinion editors issued a statement to try and justify their decision to give a platform to Haqqani.
“Our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints,” they stated. “We’ve actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, the government, the Taliban and from citizens. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the second in command of the Taliban at a time when its negotiators are hammering out an agreement with American officials in Doha that could result in American troops leaving Afghanistan. That makes his perspective relevant at this particular moment.”
What the Times did not mention, however, was the extent to which the Haqqani question has prickled the relationship between the US and Pakistan – a major non-NATO ally historically accused by many in Washington of not doing enough to facilitate American objectives in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Back in 2011, following an attack on the US embassy in Kabul believed to be perpetrated by the Haqqanis, the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, called the network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan to eliminate the network and paving the way for more American drone strikes in the country.
Mullen’s assertion caused widespread anger and disappointment in Pakistan. In the years that followed, consecutive civilian governments in Pakistan maintained that the infrastructure supporting the network had shifted to Afghanistan and that scapegoating Pakistan for American failures in an interminable war next door was disingenuous and unjust.
For many in Pakistan, no other political group better exemplifies America’s long history of playing sides to suit its own strategic objectives. Few American diplomats today care to recount that the Haqqanis started as Washington’s closest allies in Afghanistan; that the network’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani was a CIA darling kept flush with money and weaponry, including shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that would ultimately down Soviet aircraft. Fewer still have any compunction over the diplomatic arm-twisting meted out to Pakistan, including the cutting off of vital Coalition Support Fund aid, for allegedly not doing enough to combat the group.
As the US continued to pressure Pakistan for not doing enough to curtail the Haqqani Network’s activities in Afghanistan, the grievances against Washington’s regional policies started to pile up in in the country. Many in Pakistan came to believe that the US was scapegoating Islamabad to camouflage the deeper contradictions in its military strategy against the Taliban. And they had ample reason to hold this view. In 2015, for example, the US and the Haqqanis came face-to-face during the ill-fated “Murree talks” between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Conveniently, the US raised no objections to the Haqqanis being in the meeting.
For the past decade and a half, the Pakistan-US relationship has been bedevilled by a host of structural difficulties; chief among them an American tendency to use progress on the Afghan battlefield as a barometer for the costs to be imposed on Pakistan for failing to “do more”. All that time, the Haqqani Network had been the primary subject of countless rancorous conversations between successive US administrations and Pakistani governments, even as US drone strikes claimed the lives of Pakistani civilians, and Pakistan argued that expecting it to do the heavy lifting to suit US objectives was unrealistic.
This is why many in Pakistan today find the slick public rehabilitation of Sirajuddin Haqqani to be a distasteful reminder of how easily the US has managed this past decade to burden Pakistan with the costs of non-compliance, while staging a war on Pakistan’s front-lines when it suited them, and locating the bilateral relationship in apathetic conditionalities that ignored Pakistan’s own strategic concerns.
Going forward, peace in Afghanistan and gains made in recent years including on rights and the status of Afghanistan’s women are far from guaranteed. Days after the US-Taliban peace agreement in Doha, a suicide attack on a ceremony in Kabul killed at least 29 people, injuring dozens more. While the attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), it aptly demonstrated the extent to which spoilers litter the Afghan battlefield.
The worry in Islamabad is that the US, in its rush to reach a deal in light of domestic compulsions at home, may be guided by short-term intent rather than a long-term strategy, and will consequently short-change on brokering regional stability.
For instance, whether the US can achieve its counterterrorism objectives with a reduced military footprint is an unanswered question. It is almost certain that Taliban commanders now view the signing of a peace deal with the Americans as a resounding validation of a 19-year-long struggle to end an illegal foreign occupation. This is already proving to have major implications for the intra-Afghan negotiations, which are shrouded by a deepening and fractious power struggle in Kabul.
Following an election recount and a delay of nearly five months, both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president at rival inauguration ceremonies. Pakistan’s concern is that political insolvency in Kabul will trigger further regional instability and potentially a war of attrition, after the US’s exit from the country. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is, meanwhile, trying to work out a power-sharing arrangement between the two camps.
As for Pakistan-US relations, the big question is whether a future strategic equilibrium can emerge from the mistrust engendered by years of fraught, at times toxic conversations, including on the Haqqani Network. There is a keen desire in Islamabad for a broader, stronger relationship with the US, and there are signs that under President Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan, this might be possible.
On his recent visit to India, President Trump took a softer line on Pakistan, reflecting the hard work that both sides have put into resuscitating the relationship from its worst days. Indeed, Washington’s listing of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army as a terrorist group and the recent targeting of Pakistani Taliban commanders in eastern Afghanistan speaks to a gradually changing equation – one that, for once, optimises both parties’ strategic interests.
For Pakistanis, that alone is a welcome shift, even if an official public apology for taking the flak for the Haqqanis, takes time.