Several Afghanistan experts, including the former commanding general of U.S. forces in the region and the chairman of the violence-plagued country’s biggest and most influential news media outlet, expressed outrage Thursday after the New York Times published the uncontradicted peace-talk musings of a man who is arguably one of the world’s most accomplished terrorists.
“It’s a disgrace,” Saad Mohseni, chairman of the Kabul-based Moby Media Group, told The Daily Beast about the op-ed credited to Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom the newspaper identified simply as “the deputy leader of the Taliban.” That is, without reference to his leadership of the mass-murdering Haqqani Network founded by his late father, Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“The problem with this op-ed is that they’re giving a pretty nasty individual, with a track record [of terrorism] second to none of anyone else on the planet, this platform,” Mohseni said. “The New York Times is a hard place to get an op-ed in. But to have him be able to express his views unchallenged is a disgrace.”
Retired four-star Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who commanded American and NATO forces in Afghanistan during the Obama administration, agreed.
“I am well-versed with this terrorist and his network,” Allen, president of the Brookings Institution, emailed The Daily Beast, “and giving the Haqqani terror network the platform of the NYT for the expression of their views on the so-called peace plan creates a strategic communications coup for Haqqani terror network they could never have imagined or achieved absent this decision by the Times.”
New Yorker writer and war correspondent Jon Lee Anderson—who has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1988—said about Haqqani and his cohorts: “These are people who have killed their way to the negotiating table. They have terrorized post-Taliban Kabul and Afghanistan to the extent that it’s almost unlivable…They’ve shown an absolute mercilessness toward any Afghans willing to contemplate any non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist future.”
Anderson noted his New Yorker colleague David Rohde was a Times reporter in 2008 and 2009 when he was kidnapped and held captive for seven months until he managed to escape. The Haqqani Network was implicated in that incident. “Now that they’re at the negotiating table, I suppose that they’re batting their eyes like Bambi.” The Times op-ed, however, “is a very deterministic tactical move by a canny survivor of the jihadist wars who feels himself to be within reach of the prize,” he said.
Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet declined to answer questions from The Daily Beast, and directed this writer to the newspaper’s spokesperson. "We know firsthand how dangerous and destructive the Taliban is,” the spokesperson emailed in defense of the op-ed. “The Times is one of the only American news organizations to have maintained a fulltime team of reporters in Afghanistan since the start of the war nearly 20 years ago. We’ve also had multiple journalists kidnapped by the organization.
“But, our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. 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."
Not everyone within the newspaper seemed comfortable with the op-ed, however.
“The piece by Siraj Haqqani,” tweeted Mujib Mashal, the Times’ senior Afghanistan correspondent, “omits the most fundamental fact: that Siraj is no Taliban peace-maker as he paints himself, that he’s behind some of the most ruthless attacks of this war with many civilian lives lost.”
In the carefully parsed op-ed—which addresses the negotiations for an American military exit among other issues involving the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghan government—Haqqani laments, “Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and maiming must stop.”
Haqqani, however, doesn’t acknowledge his responsibility for much of that killing and maiming.
Haqqani adds, perhaps most disingenuously given the Taliban’s history, “I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam—from the right to education to the right to work—are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”
Gen. Allen, however, cautioned: “[I]f we believe for a second that Sirajuddin Haqqani and his network will honor their commitments negotiated by the Trump Administration we’re fooling ourselves. We know how the Haqqanis will treat the women of Afghanistan. We know how they’ll react to the modernity achieved by the Afghan people at such a great cost since [9/11]. We know how they’ll ‘reduce violence.’ We know there’s virtually no possibility they’ll break with Al Qaeda.
“There is no moral equivalence whatsoever between the Taliban and [President Ashraf Ghani’s recently reelected] government,” he added, “but publishing this terrorist on the pages of the Times will create one at the expense of Afghan people and all we have sacrificed.”
Mohseni, who blames Haqqani’s organization for the murders of 12 Moby Group staffers over the past four years—“young men and young women, the future of the country, who were specifically targeted and killed”—speculated that Pakistan’s Taliban-friendly intelligence agency, the widely feared ISI, had a behind-the-scenes role in producing the essay and placing it in the Times.
“Who wrote the op-ed? Who translated it for them? And who edited it for them? How do they know that this person even wrote this? The New York Times ought to ask itself those questions as well,” Mohseni said.
Other critics interviewed by The Daily Beast speculated that the essay could have been produced by a Washington lobbying or crisis communications firm, and that its publication was possibly encouraged by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy to the negotiations.
The Times spokesperson declined to address such process questions, and Khalilzad did not immediately respond to a request for comment by way of the U.S. State Department.
“This is just a PR stunt,” Mohseni said. “It’s effectively an advertorial that the New York Times has decided to amplify many, many times over, using its Op-ed Page. And this man, who clearly has blood on his hands, doesn’t give press interviews where he’s challenged and pushed back on. Instead, he’s given carte blanche. What they’re doing, essentially, is allowing this individual to launder his reputation.”