The signature of the 2020 Doha Accord between the United States and the Afghan Taliban insurgency drew what was largely seen as a surprising endorsement by the Taliban’s purportedly belligerent second-in-command Siraj ud-Din Haqqani; for years it had been claimed that the Haqqanis would be particularly predisposed against any sort of conflict as consummate hardliners. Yet this reputation entirely overlooked the far more complicated history of the Haqqanis, who for fifty years expanded their influence not only by military means but by constant negotiations and mediations. Moreover, this behaviour – negotiating with a view to the battlefield, and fighting with a view to potential talks – distinguished not only the Haqqanis but other segments of what might be termed the “Taliban southeast”, the networks of the mountainous Loya Paktia region who cut their teeth in the anticommunist insurgency, navigated the party politics and fratricidal feuds within that insurgency, and ended up joining the Taliban Emirate in whose politics they continue to play a prominent role.
Reconcilables and others
The entire notion of hardliners is a problematic one. In the Afghan context it specifically stemmed from the realisation, over a decade ago, that an outright military subjugation of the insurgency was very unlikely and that rifts within the Taliban insurgency had to be wedged and exploited. It also drew from the much-hyped, but largely illusory, success that the United States had in its Iraqi counterinsurgency, where “reconcilables” were bought off on largely empty, soon-frustrated promises and the remaining “hardliners” coalesced around the embryo of the murderous Daesh faction. The entire premise of “hardliners” and “reconcilables” also presumed a reasonable dovishness on the part of the Taliban’s opponents – whether in the Afghan government or its foreign backers – that simply could not be assumed.
At any rate, the discourse evolved at precisely the same point as the Haqqani clan was beginning to flex its muscles within the capital. The Haqqanis escalated in Kabul at precisely the point that the United States was attempting to replicate its Iraqi experiment in Afghanistan. This combined with their historical links to Osama bin Laden lent the Haqqanis a label as uncompromising fanatics that stands at stark odds with their far more complex record.
The Loya Paktia insurgency against the communists
The Loya Paktia networks have deep, diverse, often sophisticated roots within Afghan politics. During the 1960s and 1970s, the nucleus of these networks engaged in either political or military competition with leftist groups; by 1980, with the communist takeover and Soviet invasion, they were well-placed among the insurgency. They included most notably Jalal ud-Din Haqqani from the Zadran clan, who turned to the maquis early, but it also included former political leaders such as Arsala-Rahmani Daulat and Nasrullah Mansur, who had unsuccessfully competed in the political sphere and only latterly resorted to the military option.
In the several “mujahideen parties” of the 1980s, these networks had a broad range of official loyalties. Haqqani joined a faction led by his friend Younas Khalis, a preacher from Nangarhar; Daulat joined the Ittihad Party; and Mansur eventually founded his own brekaway party. But this rarely disrupted their usually cordial cooperation on the ground. Having moved to fill in the vacuum caused by the communists’ targeting of traditional clan structures, these preachers-turned-commanders also functioned as mediators: whether between rival fronts, or between the mujahideen party leaders in Peshawar and the fighters on the ground, or – as the war became increasingly internationalised – between foreign fighters and Afghans.
Haqqani’s prowess sprang largely from his mediating ability and an impressively long list of contacts: Zadran clansmen; most Peshawar-based political leaders; Afghan commanders around the country; such private Arab supporters as Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden; the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and even the United States – whose anti-Soviet politician Charlie Wilson once famously termed Haqqani “goodness personified”. Daulat, meanwhile, set up a military school run by a Zadran career officer, Gul Zarak, while Mansur was among the few Sunni insurgents to establish an office in Iran.
Faced with several enormous Soviet offensives, the Loya Paktia insurgents cooperated well as a rule. The main stickler was their relationship with the far more centralist Hizb party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who – as the primary recipient of Pakistani support – was also resented by other party leaders. Haqqani played a major role in rival mujahideen enterprises that undercut Hizb dominance: in February 1989 he personally organised the election of a shadow government at Peshawar, led by Sibghatullah Mujaddidi; and in October 1990, he established a field commanders’ council that included such famous commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, who could coordinate irrespective of party politics in Peshawar. This initiative had its first success when Haqqani led the capture of the long-besieged garrison town Khost in 1991.
The Loya Paktia networks in the 1990s
When the capture of Kabul in 1992 precipitated a furious conflict between Massoud and Hekmatyar – who ousted Mujaddidi and turned on each other – the lack of an effective central government meant that most of the Afghan periphery was effectively autonomous. But, contrary to the widespread idea that Massoud was opposed by Pashtuns for his Tajik ethnicity, such mujahideen networks as the overwhelmingly Pashtun Loya Paktia fronts officially backed the government. Haqqani tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Massoud and Hekmatyar, and his brother Ibrahim Umari barred Hekmatyar from using the Gardez airfield. Nasrullah Mansur went further, arranging the widely controversial election of Jamiat emir Burhanuddin Rabbani; he was soon assassinated. And after another reconciliation attempt between Rabbani and Hikmatyar collapsed, Arsala-Rahmani Daulat was promoted to replace Hekmatyar as prime minister in 1994.
To practical purposes, however, the Loya Paktia mujahideen steered clear of the Kabul war and instead focused on local politics and private business, the latter including the Haqqanis’ burgeoning foreign contacts in battlefields such as Sudan. The scenario changed in 1994-95, when the nascent Taliban Emirate from Qandahar routed Hekmatyar. Massoud, who had originally encouraged them against his arch-rival, soon refused to hand over power to them, but the Loya Paktia commanders – including Haqqani and his brother Ibrahim, Mansur’s brother Abdul-Latif, Daulat, Fariduddin Mahmud, and Muhammad Yasir – switched to Taliban colours en masse. In turn they retained considerable regional autonomy as well as a plethora of command, ministerial, and gubernatorial posts.
The Taliban Emirate also saw the promotion of the “second generation” of the Loya Paktia networks. The Mansurs’ largely educated followers were well-represented in Taliban officialdom: among them, Ameer Muttaqi served as a minister and a commander, and Abdul-Sattar Siddiqi as finance minister. The senior most Loya Paktia commander in the Emirate hierarchy was Muhammad Abdul-Kabir. A Zadran former lieutenant of Haqqani, he had long served as Younas Khalis’ spokesperson and acquired considerable experience and contacts across party lines in eastern Afghanistan before climbing Taliban ranks, eventually serving as prime minister in 2001.
The relative political sophistication of the Loya Paktia networks rendered more confusing their support for Osama bin Laden, going from anti-Soviet hero to anti-American pariah by the time he returned to Afghanistan in 1996. Bin Laden’s sanctuary in Loya Paktia attracted an American bombardment in 1998, and helped isolate the Emirate internationally. Yet such support was not exclusive to the Taliban Emirate – strictly speaking, bin Laden had been invited back by their rivals before they captured eastern Afghanistan, and many Afghan groups had links only hastily discarded at American pressure.
From the perspective of Loya Paktia’s pragmatists, there were other potential reasons. Such commanders as Haqqani drew their influence largely from maintaining as large a pool of contacts as possible; bin Laden ranked highly in this pool, partly owing to the fact that much of the region remembered him fondly from the anti-Soviet period and often stubbornly refused to see him except as a victim of Western conspiracy. There was also the fact that American insistence on bin Laden’s extradition was accompanied by attempts to wedge between “moderate” and “radical” Taliban, to which their Emirate could only respond by closing ranks; in other words, the call for bin Laden’s extradition became linked with suspicions of political sabotage. Finally, bin Laden’s funds helped the Taliban keep some check on the foreign fighters who had joined their ranks. Ultimately, however, this proved a tragic miscalculation, since bin Laden’s bloody escapades provoked an American invasion of Afghanistan.
The Loya Paktia networks after the American invasion
The Loya Paktia networks’ response to the American invasion was telling; they both held out hopes of a resolution and prepared for the worst. Taliban prime minister Abdul-Kabir, the former lieutenant of Haqqani, offered a conditional extradition of Osama bin Laden; when this was rebuffed, he publicly proclaimed his solidarity with bin Laden at Jalalabad. By the end of the year, like their counterparts in Qandahar the Loya Paktia Taliban had begun to attempt a reconciliation with Hamid Karzai that could cut their losses. Flying under the radar, some had limited success; Daulat, Siddiqi, and Abdul-Hakeem Munib were given an amnesty by Karzai.
But more often, the problem that had prevented reconciliation in the south also applied to Loya Paktia: the Americans and northern Afghan militias on whom Karzai relied were in no simply mood to relent on their defeated opponent: in other words, it was Washington who were the irreconcilables at this key point. This was most obvious in the case of Jalal ud-Din Haqqani, who had been promoted to military commander but who retained his basic pragmatism. Haqqani sent his brother Ibrahim Umari to negotiate with Karzai, who responded positively, only for the northerners and Americans to scupper the deal and target Loya Paktia with a ferocious bombardment that uprooted much of the region and sent them scattering across the border. Nasrullah Mansur’s son, Saifur-Rahman, led a daring evacuation of Taliban and foreign fighters against an American manhunt in spring 2002; by this point any prospect of negotiation was over, and in 2003 a major Taliban command was set up at Miranshah that was dominated by the Haqqanis.
In spite of their lethal militancy and their unquestionable commitment – Jalal ud-Din lost several sons in the war – the Loya Paktia networks never lost their penchant for the diplomatic chinwag. The Haqqani family, now led by Siraj ud-Din, interfaced both between the Taliban and foreign fighters, and also between the Pakistani government and the Waziristan insurgency. So did Muhammad Yasir, the experienced mujahideen politician who also co-wrote the Taliban code of conduct in 2009. Abdul-Latif Mansur and Muhammad Abdul-Kabir served as shadow “foreign ministers” during the late 2000s, while the Mansurs’ lieutenant Ismail Nasir briefly served as military second-in-command. Away from the insurgency, meanwhile, Arsala-Rahmani Daulat led a reconciliation committee between the government and insurgency until his mysterious assassination. The fact was that despite their treatment as extremist “pariahs” by both international and much official sources, the Loya Paktia networks were better-connected across faultlines in the region than nearly any other actor.
However, militancy remained key to these networks’ bargaining power. In 2014, Siraj ud-Din secured the release of five major Taliban leaders – including his family’s former lieutenant, border commander Nabi Umari – in return for an American prisoner. When Akhtar Mansur controversially took over as emir in 2015, he relied heavily on alliances with Siraj ud-Din, Abdul-Latif, and Muttaqi; when he was killed by American airstrike a year later, Siraj ud-Din played a key role in the smooth transition process to his successor Hebatullah Akhundzada.
It is therefore no surprise that Loya Paktia’s Taliban remain in influential positions across the Taliban – more so now, perhaps, than ever before. The 2020 Doha peace process involved at least six members of these networks: Siraj ud-Din’s brother Anas, Abdul-Kabir, Abdul-Latif, Muttaqi, Nabi Umari, and Fariduddin Mahmud – as well as several slightly more distant associates who have worked with them for a generation, such as shadow foreign minister Sher Abbas and Younas Khalis’ son Matiul-Haq. The ubiquity of these networks bely the notion that the Taliban insurgency can be meaningfully split by the United States and its partners along regional, “civil-military”, or indeed ideological lines. As the career of such adventurers as the Haqqanis show, it is eminently possible to talk and fight at once.