Haqqani Network is at the centre of a nexus of jehadi violence in a triangle of relations with the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani military and al-Qa’ida.
Charlie Wilson, the gaudy US congressman from Texas whose support for arming the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave the name Charlie’s War to George Crile’s book (and the Tom Hanks feature adaptation of the same name), drank, lusted, flirted, bribed and persuaded with cheerful abandon — and once referred to Jalaluddin Haqqani as “goodness personified.”
That same Jalaluddin Haqqani, Vahid Brown and Don Rassler argue in their book, Fountainhead of Jihad: the Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012, was pushing the line of obligatory global jihad even before Abdullah Azzam, and was the first to recruit Arab “foreign fighters” to the jihad back in the 1980s. The network that paragon of goodness established is still, some forty years later, continuing in a tradition that began before the Durand Line was scrawled across a map, already in place when the British attempted to ‘take’ Afghanistan in the First Afghan War of 1839 — and that has arguably prevailed repeatedly in that mountainous, mutinous region against all comers since Iskandar tried his own fortune at what would later be called the Great Game.
This isn’t the first time Vahid Brown and Don Rassler have collaborated in a work examining the Haqqani network. They werejointly responsible for The Haqqani Nexus and the Evolution of al-Qa’ida. It is, however, the first major book bringing the Haqqanis out from the shadows, and belongs alongside Abu Walid al-Masri’s and others’ accounts of the earliest days of al-Qaida, as well as such fine works of western scholarship of the global jihad as Wagemakers’ A Quietist Jihadi and Lia’s Architects of Global Jihad. Brown and Rassler begin with context, divided by that thinly penciled Durand Line on the map, with Afghanistan “the last battleground of the Cold War and the first of the Global War in Terror”, and Pakistan “locked in a nuclear stalemate with India punctuated by varying levels of cross-border war-by-proxy”. In some ways, the story of the Haqqanis is one that blurs that thinly penciled line and brings the narratives of those two nation states from congruence into continuity.
The book’s title, Fountainhead of Jihad, is that of the Haqqani’s own magazine and video productions — and Brown and Rassler show it to be an accurate depiction. The Haqqani nexus, they write, “has survived for nearly forty years in an extremely volatile region of the world, and it has done so primarily through a careful balancing act that has kept it at the center of a nexus of violence” in a “triangle of relations with the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani military, and al-Qa’ida”. As Brown and Rassler note, “Respectively representing the local, regional, and global dimensions of the Haqqani nexus, these are not three groups that one would expect to find sharing a single partner.”
The book is in two parts, Vahid Brown writing the first on the historical background and growth of the Haqqanis up to the events of 9/11, the second by Dan Rassler covering the organisational dynamics and connections of the nexus as they can be discerned since that time, and the book concludes with an overview of major findings. The authors are at pains to explain that they have not entered into the various policy debates surrounding the Haqqanis, have focused on hitherto unseen primary sources, thousands of pages of which have been available to them, and that they have been careful “not to advocate for or against any particular policy option by any particular state involved”. The book, then, offers a clear and detailed picture which may be set against a given nation’s or individual’s own concerns and questions, favouring neither Afghan, Pakistani, American nor Indian perspectives, but potentially informing each of them in turn.
In the first chapter, Brown situates the Haqqani zone of interest in Loya Paktia and North Waziristan — neatly straddling the Line — among the fiercely independent high mountain peoples, and following a long tradition of organisation, where needed, by clerics rather than by tribal leaders, influenced first by the pirs of Sufism and later by Deobandi mawlanas, and with some contempt for the disrespect of popular pieties shown by Wahhabists. Sociologically, these mountainous regions fit James Scott’s description of “shatter zones” — flexible and autonomous — while as Brown notes, liable if opposed to “shatter back.”
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets sets the nexus in motion. The 1980s brought many billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan to support the mujahideen, but even before the stream of aid became a flood, the Haqqanis were reaching out to the Arab world for foreign volunteers to join forces with them, and it is the confluence of this Haqqani invitation and increasing western aid and materiel — not least the “Charlie’s War” Stinger missiles — that brings defeat to the First Great Superpower, a sense of victory and growing possibility to jihad inclined members of the ummah, and early “Afghan Arabs” including Azzam, al-Masri, and others to build and oversee training camps.
On the Pakistani military side, while the trainees were making for Khost, the long term idea was to view the Afghan front as an early staging for the proxy war with India over Kashmir. Bin Laden enters the picture, bringing with him considerable knowledge of construction and the means to build, splits with Azzam to form a training camp just for the Arab Afghans, and founds al-Qa’idat at-‘askarriya. By 1991, Jalaluddin Haqqani is calling for global support for jihad in Sudan — the jihad is no longer simply waged in Khorasan with pleas for global support; Khorasan is now calling for jihad itself to go global.
The second half of the book, by Rassler, draws on such documents as ongoing espionage, battlefield spoils and the vagaries of fate have made available: the matter of Haqqani organisation and connections, local, regional and global, is an exercise in inference and deduction, occupying three chapters.
In closing, the authors quote Ali Soufan, ex-FBI and author of Black Banners, “the most important weapon we have against al-Qa’ida (or the Taliban for that matter) is knowledge.” Progress in attaining that knowledge has been slow, and our understanding of the Haqqani nexus accordingly poor. Three motives — roughly, friendship, profit, and religion — have been proposed to explain the nexus’ ties with bin Laden and al-Qa’ida, and the authors find merit in each. Our knowledge however remains fragmentary: this book offers the beginning of scholarly understanding.
Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012
By Vahid Brown and Don Rassler
Hurst, Columbia University Press, 2013