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09.23.11

A New Al Qaeda in Pakistan

Departing Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen’s farewell shot linked Pakistani intelligence to terrorism—and showed growing U.S. concern about the Haqqani network becoming South Asia’s rising terror threat.

During his swan-song appearance before Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a shot across the bow of Pakistan that reflects the evolving thinking about the war on terror and growing American fears that the Haqqani network is becoming a more formidable nemesis in the region.

Adm. Mike Mullen’s allegation Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani terror network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency” put on the record what has been left unspoken for months among U.S. officials: Haqqani is growing in prominence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan with the help of Islamabad’s own intelligence service.

“It’s one thing to talk about it privately and another thing to say it publicly,” said John Wood, who served as a senior director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council under Presidents Bush and Obama. “It was useful to make such a strong statement—I think he’s being truthful.”

Pakistan, of course, offered the obligatory protest to Mullen’s statement.

“I categorically deny it,” Rehman Malik, the interior minister, told Reuters.

American officials have long accused the Pakistani military of having ties with terrorists, and they reportedly discussed the Haqqani fighters with Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, while he was in Washington, D.C., on a recent visit.

The Americans fear that the Haqqanis have become increasingly lethal and effective in the region, even as the U.S. thins out al Qaeda’s top leadership and capabilities. The main difference is that the Haqqanis don’t aspire to global action; they are focused solely on their power base in Southern Asia. But aided by ISI, they could become an increasing menace in the region, on par with al Qaeda.

Mullen was no doubt emboldened by the fact that he is leaving his job soon.

“He’s never going to have to go to a meeting with Pakistanis again—seriously—so he can say things and there are no consequences,” said Douglas Ollivant, who served as a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan. When the new chairman, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, meets with Pakistani officials, “Dempsey can just shrug and say, ‘Oh, he had a bad day,’ and they can move on,” he added.

Mullen’s statement could just melt away. It also might goad Pakistani officials into action and force them to do something about their apparent relationship with the terrorists.

In this way, as Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says, they could ward off another disaster, or “unilateral congressional action”: a decision by members of Congress to cut off aid to Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation in the midst of an economic crisis.

In the meantime, Haqqani fighters continue with their bloody campaign, crossing over the border into Afghanistan and killing Americans.

The founder of the network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, once helped assemble mujahedeen fighters who stood up against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, and he served as minister of tribal affairs for the Taliban. After the Americans invaded Afghanistan, he turned around and set his fighters against the U.S. troops.

Today the network has between 4,000 and 12,000 fighters, reports The New York Times, and it is run by Haqqani’s 36-year-old son, Sirajuddin.

The Haqqanis are a charged subject both for Pakistanis and Americans, partly because Americans are targeted, whether they are soldiers in Afghanistan or journalists working in Pakistan. “You go into their territory and you’re fair game,” said Ollivant, who is now a senior fellow at New America Foundation.

The Haqqanis kidnapped New York Times reporter David Rohde in 2008 and held him for seven months in Pakistan. For that reason, American journalists in Pakistan are acutely aware of the danger posed by the Haqqanis and other terrorists, and this can make reporting on the story more challenging.

One Pakistani military expert, Rifaat Hussain, who has close ties to the Army, told me last year at Islamabad University, where he teaches, that the worries about the Haqqanis were misplaced. He pointed out that they did not kill the journalists they had in their grasp.

A gracious host, Hussain had led me to a small room in a university building for our interview, where we had tea and cardamom cookies. Americans took some risk by coming to Pakistan, he said, and when they visited him on campus, he tried to seat them away from a window.

As I reached for a cookie, I thought about the implications of his remark—it was better to keep Americans out of target range. That made me a little uncomfortable, and it also made it hard to hear Hussain speak casually about the Haqqani fighters.

“Whatever you say about the Haqqani network, they let him go,” Hussain told me, referring to Rohde, who has described a harrowing escape. Regardless of the circumstances, he survived. Not everyone has.

“Look at what happened to Daniel Pearl,” Hussain pointed out, referring to the Wall Street Journal reporter who was seized by al Qaeda in Karachi nearly a decade ago and later beheaded.

“You go into their territory, you’re fair game,” said Ollivant.

Hussain has a point: for all its brutality, the Haqqani network is no al Qaeda. The Haqqanis may kill Americans and kidnap journalists, or provide sanctuary to al Qaeda, but their operations are limited to South Asia and they do not have global ambition. “From Miranshah to Kabul—no further,” said Ollivant, referring to the region where the Haqqanis operate, apparently with no plans to come to New York or Washington.

Yet I felt uneasy in Islamabad, despite the reassurances of Rifaat Hussain, and that is the point of terrorism: to throw citizens and political leaders off balance. Now that Admiral Mullen has reminded members of Congress about the brutality of the Haqqani network, and their apparent collusion with Pakistani officials, things might change. Then again, they might not, as has been the larger story of U.S.-Pakistani relations.