Haqqani Network Influence in Kurram and its Implications for Afghanistan

Mar 01, 2011

The Haqqani network is one of Afghanistan’s most capable insurgent groups. Based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan Agency, the Haqqani network’s senior leadership directs the insurgency in Afghanistan’s southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktika, and Paktia. The network is important not only because of its tactical and operational proficiency, but because it links foreign terrorists, such as al-Qa`ida, to operations inside Afghanistan.

In the last few years, however, the Haqqani network has come under growing pressure in North Waziristan. The group has been targeted by repeated drone strikes in Miran Shah, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has severed a number of the network’s infiltration routes in southern Khost and eastern Paktika. According to the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in southeastern Afghanistan, this increased pressure has made it difficult for the senior Haqqani leadership to direct and provide resources to the insurgency in the southeast.[1] Meanwhile, the United States has prodded Pakistani security forces to launch full-scale operations in North Waziristan targeting the Haqqanis, as well as the affiliated national and transnational terrorists they harbor.[2] Thus far, Pakistan’s military has largely failed to launch such operations despite international pressure.[3]

In response to attacks on its North Waziristan bases, the Haqqanis, under the leadership of Sirajuddin and Badruddin Haqqani (sons of the infamous mujahidin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani), have expanded their Pakistan-based sanctuary into Kurram Agency. They have accomplished this with the help of myriad other insurgent and terrorist groups, and some allege with the aid of the Pakistani security establishment.[4] Recent Haqqani interference in Kurram and the network’s brokering of a peace deal between long-feuding Sunni and Shi`a tribes in the region have important implications for U.S. efforts in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqani network’s ties with al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups, and the international community’s tenuous relationship with Pakistan.

This article explains the strategic significance of Kurram, and then examines how the Haqqani network has been able to increase its influence in this tribal agency by exploiting sectarian tensions.

Kurram Agency’s Strategic Significance
Kurram is approximately 1,305 square miles and is the third-largest agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).[5] Adjacent to North Waziristan Agency, Kurram juts into eastern Afghanistan and is strategically located between the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Nangarhar. The area, referred to as “Parrot’s Beak” for its unique shape, became one of the main staging grounds for mujahidin forces battling the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.[6] Kurram is only 60 miles from Kabul and provides easy access to strategic areas such as Khost, Gardez and Jalalabad. The adjacent Afghan district of Jaji in Paktia Province played host to Usama bin Ladin and his cadre of Arab volunteer fighters during the 1980s. These fighters transited through Kurram to move between Jaji and Jalalabad, building roads to facilitate easy access.[7] In Jaji, Bin Ladin constructed mas`ada, Arabic for the “Lion’s Den,” which eventually became a cavernous cave complex serving as the forward deployed position for foreign fighters assisting in the anti-Soviet jihad.[8]

Today, Kurram Agency provides the Haqqani network and affiliated foreign fighters significant advantages. Upper Kurram enables relatively direct access to Kabul, in addition to providing the southeastern insurgency with easy access to its base of operations along the Paktia-Khost border in Afghanistan’s southeast. From Upper Kurram, the Haqqani network can project force into Kabul, as they did from their stronghold in Logar until their operations were significantly degraded by U.S. and coalition forces during the course of late 2009-2010.[9] The network is best known for carrying out spectacular suicide attacks in Kabul that have targeted Afghan, ISAF, and Indian infrastructure. Following U.S.-led operations to dismantle Kabul-focused Haqqani operations nearing the southern approaches of Kabul in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, spectacular attacks executed in the Afghan capital have become increasingly rare. Yet the Haqqanis have presumably sought new routes to access the Afghan capital.[10] Striking Kabul is of enormous benefit to the Haqqanis: it provides them with worldwide recognition and credibility, and likely helps with funding and recruitment. The network’s attacks on Indian targets in the capital may also bolster Pakistani intelligence support for their operations.[11]

The Kurram region has other human terrain and strategic advantages. The Haqqanis’ presence in Upper Kurram is in and around the villages of Mata Sangar and Bashura, where the network has allied with the Sunni tribesmen who were hitherto under constant siege by Shi`a Turi tribesmen.[12] Bashura and Mata Sangar are host to both Haqqani and foreign fighters, including al-Qa`ida.[13] Mata Sangar was also the location of the well-publicized September 2010 NATO cross-border helicopter raids that resulted in Pakistan temporarily closing the Torkham Gate, a key transit hub for supplying ISAF operations in Afghanistan; it is not clear whether NATO was targeting the Haqqani network in the raid, although Haqqani fighters are prevalent in the village.[14]

From Mata Sangar and the surrounding areas, Haqqani network fighters and their affiliates (such as al-Qa`ida or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) have easy access to their primary bases of operation along the Paktia-Khost border in Afghanistan, principally in the districts of Jani Khel, Paktia and Sabari, Khost.[15] To protect their presence along the Paktia-Khost border, the Haqqanis have allied themselves with elements of the Sunni Moqbil tribe who dominate the area. U.S. soldiers with experience in Paktia believe that the Moqbil are paid by elements of the Pakistani security services to assist Haqqani operations.[16] These same soldiers think that the Haqqanis are provided sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by elements of the Pakistani security establishment to restrict U.S. forces’ ability to interfere with Haqqani operations in southeastern Afghanistan.[17]

Sunni vs. Shi`a in Kurram
Kurram’s significance for the Haqqani network is not only its strategic advantages, but also its long history of tribal conflict. The region is home to the Haqqanis’ Sunni allies, the Bashura and the Moqbil, but it is also home to a significant population of Shi`a tribes: the Turi, Bangash, and Hazara. Major sectarian clashes between these Shi`a tribes and Sunni Pashtuns in Kurram first occurred in the 1960s and resumed again in the mid-1980s and 1990s.[18] The clashes have often centered on land or resource disputes, although tensions have usually been heightened during the annual month-long Shi`a holiday of Muharram, which has caused heightened tribal conflict.

Frequent large-scale clashes between Sunni and Shi`a tribes in Central and Upper Kurram occurred between 2007 and 2010.[19] Both the Sunni and Shi`a tribes in the area were proxies for a variety of militant groups. Sunni tribes (Mangal, Moqbil, Para Chamkani, Ali Sherzai, among others) are allegedly supported by such groups as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-i-Tayyiba, al-Qa`ida and Haqqani fighters.[20] Shi`a tribes (Turi, Bangash, among others) are allegedly supported by Iranian-affiliated Kurram Hizb Allah and the Mahdi Militia.[21]

The Shi`a have been under increased pressure from a variety of actors during the past several years. Shi`a tribesmen in and around Kurram’s capital of Parachinar were largely unable to traverse the Parachinar-Thall road, a key highway that stretches from Upper Kurram to Lower Kurram and continues into Peshawar. Sunni tribesmen and Taliban militants control the lower half of the road, effectively preventing the Shi`a from traveling to Peshawar to buy goods, receive medical care, or visit family. With the lower half of the road too dangerous to traverse, the Shi`a were left with two options: either travel into Paktia to get to the provincial capital of Gardez, or travel through the Afghan east exiting through Nangarhar to reach the Pakistani city of Peshawar.[22] Both of these options were unattractive, as many Shi`a travelers have experienced abuses at the hands of Afghan Pashtuns, Afghan Border Police officials, and Pakistani Frontier Corpsmen that man checkpoints in Kurram.[23]

Rather than intervening to enforce peace, the Pakistani military has instead been accused of negligence by the Shi`a. In October 2010, for example, the Pakistani security establishment blocked five main routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the routes used by the Shi`a.[24] The purpose of this blockade was likely to increase pressure on the Shi`a to broker a truce with the Sunnis. At the same time, Taliban fighters increased pressure on Shi`a positions. As a result, the Shi`a tribes of Upper Kurram, mainly the Turi, were hemmed in by Taliban militants to the south and east and Pakistani security forces to the north and west.[25] They were unable to receive basic goods and medical care. For the Shi`a in Kurram, the status quo had become untenable.

Exploiting Sectarian Tensions to Gain Access to Kurram
It appears that this sectarian tension in Kurram was partially stoked by outsiders who manipulated local Sunni tribes in and around Upper Kurram.[26] The Haqqani network, along with other Taliban militants, is likely the main force behind the manipulation of tribal conflict in Kurram.[27] Through their relationship with affiliated groups, the Haqqani network appears to have laid siege to Shi`a communities in Upper and Central Kurram to establish a new sanctuary for themselves in this area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.[28]

The exploitation of tensions between rivals is a familiar Haqqani tactic used in pursuit of strategic objectives.[29] For example, in northern Khost and southern Paktia, a dispute over pine nuts broke out between the majority Mangal tribe and the Moqbil tribe during the late summer of 2009.[30] The Haqqanis provided the Moqbil with heavy weaponry, which in effect stymied the Mangal offensive.[31] The Haqqanis then inserted themselves as peace brokers to settle the dispute between the two warring parties. In return for settling the dispute, the Haqqanis were praised by the Moqbil, while they received sanctuary for training camps and infrastructure in Mangal tribal territory in northwest Khost.[32]

A similar situation appears to have occurred in Kurram. Although the Haqqani network was likely involved in supporting tribes against the Shi`a in Kurram, they also brokered peace between the two parties.[33] Reports of Haqqani involvement in mediation efforts between Sunni and Shi`a tribes in Kurram first surfaced in March 2009, during a meeting that was also attended by the powerful TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud.[34] These initial talks failed to broker a truce, as fighting continued throughout 2009 and 2010.

Between November 2010 and January 2011, several more rounds of talks were held. These talks were attended by Jalaluddin Haqqani’s brothers, Ibrahim and Haji Khalil Haqqani, and they coincided with increasing pressure on the Shi`a in Upper Kurram.[35] The negotiations were held in Parachinar, Islamabad, and Peshawar, with attendance from Shi`a and Sunni tribal leaders, key militant leaders, and representatives of the Pakistani government.[36] Although these meetings appeared to make some progress, no deal was reached.[37] Despite the failure to reach an agreement, as a gesture of good faith (and to demonstrate their influence among Pakistani Taliban), the Haqqanis secured the release of six Shi`a hostages who were abducted from Lower Kurram in July 2010.[38]

In early February 2011, a 220-person jirga (tribal gathering) comprised of Shi`a and Sunni leadership, as well as Haqqani network members, appeared to reach a peace deal between the warring factions in Kurram.[39] In exchange for stopping Pakistani Taliban attacks on the Shi`a and the blockading of the Parachinar-Thall road, Shi`a tribesmen will now in effect allow insurgents, including those from the Haqqani network, the right to travel through their territory and into Afghanistan.[40] The agreement went into effect on February 5, 2011, according to jirga chief Malik Waris Khan Afridi and Interior Minister Rehman Malik.[41] The details of the accord have not been made public, but it is likely that the parties involved will defer to the Murree Accord of 2008, reached by the Sunni Mangal and Shi`a Turi in Kurram. The Murree agreement called for the return of captured or deceased tribesmen, the opening of the Parachinar-Thall road and the resettlement of internally displaced peoples who fled the violence.[42] According to individuals with knowledge of the final talks that brokered the current truce, Haji Khalil Haqqani was instrumental in reaching a settlement after both sides were allegedly pressured by elements of the Pakistani government to heed his authority.[43]

On February 8, 2011, the Kurram TTP, led by Fazal Saeed, announced that they would extend “all-out” support to the political administration and security forces of Pakistan to implement the peace agreement reached between elders of the Sunni and Shi`a sects of Kurram.[44] As the most important powerbrokers in FATA, the Haqqanis seem to possess tremendous influence over the TTP.[45] Indeed, the two organizations have been known to collaborate and their leaders are on good terms; the TTP’s former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, fought under the Haqqanis before starting the TTP. Baitullah and hundreds of his loyal fighters also fought alongside the Haqqani network in Jani Khel, Paktia during the summer of 2008. Furthermore, Baitullah’s successor and current head of the TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud, was reportedly a favorite of Siraj Haqqani to lead the movement due to Hakimullah’s willingness to focus on attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis’ previous efforts to help broker the peace between the TTP, rival Taliban groups and the Pakistani government indicates that these militants are willing to pledge wak (authority) to the Haqqanis to settle disputes.[46] It was said that as long as Siraj remained in the area, “the guns remained silent.”[47] Although there are multiple rumors circulating around Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that the Haqqani network may have co-opted large segments of the TTP in the Waziristans, Kurram, and Orakzai and subsequently convinced the TTP leadership to focus more assets on the fight in Afghanistan, this is difficult to verify through open source reporting.[48]

Conclusion and Outlook
The recent Haqqani-brokered peace agreement between Sunni and Shi`a factions in Kurram will have negative implications for security and stability efforts in southeastern and possibly even eastern Afghanistan.

First, it appears that elements within the Pakistani security establishment continue to provide some support to the Haqqani network. Instead of relying on Pakistan’s government to dismantle the Haqqani network, ISAF efforts should focus on defeating the Haqqani network inside Afghanistan, thus rendering alleged Pakistani support for the network ineffective and irrelevant. ISAF is moving in this direction through its new “defense in-depth” strategy.[49]

Second, the Haqqani network, al-Qa`ida, and affiliated foreign fighters will enjoy new sanctuary in Kurram (without Shi`a interference) from which to project force inside Afghanistan’s southeast. This will relieve pressure on the Haqqanis in North Waziristan by essentially doubling the area for which ISAF and Afghan forces must now account.

Third, expanded sanctuary in Kurram provides the Haqqanis and affiliated fighters the ability to access their strategically-located sanctuary along the Paktia-Khost border and provides the network with easier access to Kabul, and therefore a vantage from which to begin attacks on the capital again.

Perhaps most importantly, if the Haqqanis have co-opted significant portions of the TTP in the Waziristans, Kurram and Orakzai, it will provide the network with new influence in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan and an infusion of fresh fighters to help seize Loy-Paktia. Furthermore, the growing role of the Haqqani network as powerbrokers and arbitrators among Pakistani Taliban must not be overlooked. Through these means, the Haqqanis have managed to increase their worth to the Pakistani establishment at the precise time that the international community is pressuring Islamabad to act against the Haqqanis.

Despite Haqqani intervention and what appears to be a recognized peace agreement between Sunni and Shi`a factions in Kurram, previous agreements have failed to hold. Although in its infancy, the most recent agreement has the full backing of the Pakistani government, Haqqani network, Sunni and Shi`a tribal elders, and seemingly relevant factions of the TTP. It is possible that smaller factions of the local Taliban who are not subsumed under the TTP umbrella may not have signed-on to this agreement, but given the presence of the Pakistani military, Haqqani network, the TTP and others, it is unlikely that these groups would be willing to challenge the brokered peace. Whether or not the agreement holds in the long-term depends, in part, on the very influence and power of the Haqqani network.

Jeffrey Dressler is a Senior Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington, D.C. Mr. Dressler studies security dynamics in southern and eastern Afghanistan in addition to the Pakistani tribal region. He is the author of the recent ISW report, “The Haqqani Network: From Pakistan to Afghanistan.”

[1] U.S. Colonel Viet Luong, news briefing, teleconference from Afghanistan, U.S. Department of Defense, December 28, 2010.

[2] Jeffrey Dressler, “The Afghan Insurgent Group that Will Not Negotiate,” The Atlantic, October 25, 2010.

[3] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “US Patience on N. Waziristan Wearing Thin, Warns Biden,” The News International, January 13, 2011.

[4] There is no direct evidence linking the Pakistani security establishment to the Haqqani network’s expansion in Kurram. Many Western analysts, however, believe that the Pakistani security establishment is likely offering some assistance to the Haqqani network, as they see the group as a potential proxy force for gaining influence in Afghanistan after the eventual departure of international troops.

[5] “Kurram Agency and the U.S. and Pakistan’s Divergent Interests,” Stratfor, November 2, 2010.

[6] Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 329.

[7] Ibid., pp. 53, 62. Loy-Paktia (Paktia, Paktika and Khost) was the territorial stronghold of Jalaluddin Haqqani who was considered one of the most capable and effective mujahidin military commanders in the battle against the Soviets. By the late 1980s, Haqqani had become a “militant folk hero,” operating fundraising offices in the Persian Gulf and hosting Arab volunteers in his territory, according to Steve Coll.

[8] Lawrence Wright, The Loom¬ing Tower (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), p. 129.

[9] Jeffrey Dressler, “The Haqqani Network: From Pakistan to Afghanistan,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2011.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Haqqani network is allegedly responsible for the following attacks targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan: SVBIED detonated outside the entrance to the Indian Embassy in July 2008; SVBIED detonated outside the entrance to the Indian Embassy in October 2009; attack on a Kabul guesthouse used primarily by Indians in February 2010. For details, see ibid.

[12] Personal interviews, U.S. Special Forces previously deployed to southeastern Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity, February 5, 2011; Personal interview, Dr. Mohammad Taqi, Pakistani journalist, February 15, 2011.

[13] Personal interviews, U.S. Special Forces previously deployed to southeastern Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity, February 5, 2011.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Fighters moving into Paktia from Upper Kurram follow a narrow valley that passes through Chamkani district and provides easy access to the Haqqanis’ main southeastern sanctuary, stretching from southern Chamkani district of Paktia in Hokumzai village, south through Jani Khel into Khost’s northern Sabari district.

[16] Personal interviews, U.S. Special Forces previously deployed to southeastern Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity, February 5, 2011.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Imtiaz Ali, “Shiite-Sunni Strife Paralyzes Life in Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency,” Terrorism Focus 5:17 (2008).

[19] More recent clashes between Sunni Moqbil and Shi`a Turi on the Kurram-Paktia border allegedly erupted over disputed water rights, although The Long War Journal alleges that this is a fabricated story to allow the Pakistani military to intervene on behalf of the Haqqanis. See “Siraj Haqqani Sheltering in Kurram, Near Area of U.S. Helicopter Strikes,” The Long War Journal, October 22, 2010.

[20] “The Future of South Asia: Panel Discussion with Mike Waltz,” New America Foundation, November 10, 2010.

[21] Mansur Khan Mahsud, “The Battle for Pakistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kurram,” New America Foundation, April 2010.

[22] Tayyab Ali Shah, “Taliban Exploit Shi’a-Sunni Divide in Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency,” Terrorism Monitor 8:15 (2010).

[23] Personal interviews, U.S. Special Forces previously deployed to southeastern Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity, February 5, 2011.

[24] “Pakistan Army Blockades Anti-Taliban Tribe in Kurram,” BBC, October 26, 2010. Although reported simply as “Taliban” fighters, the description of the fighters as well as their intentions to target Kabul suggest that they belonged to the Haqqani network.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Mariam Abou Zahab, “Sectarianism in Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency,” Terrorism Monitor 7:6 (2009).

[27] Arif Jamal, “Haqqani Network Shifting from North Waziristan to Pakistan’s Kurram Agency,” Terrorism Monitor 8:45 (2010).

[28] Ibid.; Mohammad Taqi, “Kurram: The Forsaken FATA,” Daily Times, November 4, 2010.

[29] “The Future of South Asia: Panel Discussion with Mike Waltz.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Daud Khattak, “A Haqqani-Brokered Peace in Kurram Agency?” The AfPak Channel, February 16, 2011.

[34] Zulfiqar Ali, “Taliban Trying to End Tribal Clashes in Kurram,” Dawn, September 16, 2010.

[35] Jalaluddin Haqqani’s brother Ibrahim and son Nasruddin were both detained by Pakistani authorities in December 2010. Safe-houses in major Pakistani cities often serve as “detention” facilities where individuals are allegedly allowed to continue their activities, yet from a safe location. See Julie McCarthy, “Taliban-Allied Group Widens Influence in Pakistan,” National Public Radio, November 15, 2010. Some reports incorrectly claim Haji Khalil and Ibrahim are sons of Jalaluddin Haqqani.

[36]  “Haqqani’s Two Sons Mediating in Kurram,” Dawn, October 21, 2010.

[37] In mid-January 2011, the Pakistani government agreed to provide helicopter services between Parachinar and Peshawar for Shi`a affected by the ongoing crisis. The timing of this announcement is interesting given the government’s previous inattention to the plight of the Shi`a and could be viewed as a “good faith” gesture on behalf of the Pakistani government, knowing that an eventual deal between Sunni and Shi`a factions was not far away.

[38] McCarthy.

[39]  Personal interview, Mohammad Taqi, Pakistani journalist, February 3, 2011.

[40] Khattak.

[41] Qaiser Butt, “Kurram Tribal Region: Peace Accord Signed to End Years of Bloodshed,” Express Tribune, February 4, 2011.

[42] “Kurram Rival Tribes Agree on Peace Accord,” The Nation, October 16, 2008.

[43] Personal interview, Mohammad Taqi, Pakistani journalist, February 3, 2011.

[44] “TTP Warns Violators of Kurram Peace Deal,” The News International, February 8, 2011.

[45] For details, see Imtiaz Ali, “Baitullah Mehsud – The Taliban’s New Leader in Pakistan,” Terrorism Focus 5:1 (2008); Alec E. Metz and Harold Ingram, “The Pakistan/Afghan Divide: Baitullah Mehsud and Mission Creep,” The Culture & Conflict Review 2:2 (2008); Personal interviews, U.S. Special Forces previously deployed to southeastern Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity, February 5, 2011. According to Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban movement originated in Khost while fighting for the Haqqani network under the important commander Maulvi Sangeen. For details, see Claudio Franco, “An Analysis of Hakimullah Mehsud’s Handwritten Autobiographical Notes,” NEFA Foundation, October 2009.

[46] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Uzbeks, Go Home,” Newsline, April 11, 2007.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Personal interviews, Pakistani reporters covering security dynamics in FATA, January 2010-February 2011. One possible explanation for the Haqqanis’ co-option of large segments of the TTP is that defeating ISAF and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan would allow sanctuary from which TTP fighters could launch an offensive on the Pakistani state and pursue their strategic objectives.

[49] ISAF has implemented a new strategy for limiting the effect of militants’ cross-border activity. The strategy, called “defense in-depth,” deploys multiple layers of security along the most-trafficked infiltration routes. Defense in-depth is not designed to fix militants on the border; rather, it is designed to effectively target them once they infiltrate. See Carlotta Gall, “Petraeus Sees Military Progress in Afghanistan,” New York Times, March 8, 2011.