For nearly half a century, Pakistan’s covert alliance with the followers of an Afghan rebel cleric withstood a Soviet invasion, an Afghan civil war, and the U.S. war on terrorism.
But relations between the Haqqani network -- the Afghan Taliban’s deadly military wing -- and Pakistan’s powerful military now appear strained amid Washington’s mounting pressure on Islamabad to cease support for the Afghan insurgents.
In interviews with RFE/RL’s Gandhara website, well-placed Afghan and Pakistani sources confirmed that, for the first time, tensions and mutual mistrust now mar the clandestine ties.
“Definitely there are strains in the relationship between Rawalpindi and the Haqqani network,” a Pakistani politician with intimate knowledge of Islamabad’s decade-old covert support for the Afghan insurgent group told Gandhara. The northwestern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to the capital, Islamabad, houses the headquarters of the Pakistani Army; for many Pakistanis, the name is synonymous with the armed forces.
The Haqqani network, named after veteran jihadist leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, is now led by his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani. While Afghan and Western authorities prefer to classify them as a separate entity from the Afghan Taliban, Sirajuddin is now a deputy Taliban leader and his supporters want to be viewed as part of the hard-line movement.
Requesting anonymity because discussing such sensitive and previously unreported developments could endanger his security, the politician said key interlocutors in Pakistan’s western Federally Administered Tribal Areas confirmed the tensions, spurred by Islamabad’s repositioning after Washington’s demand to end militant sanctuaries on its territory.
“Rawalpindi wanted to stagger the network’s operations across the border to avoid U.S. retaliation,” he said.
The politician said the Haqqanis were roiled over Pakistan’s recent rescue of North American hostages because they had wanted to exchange them for their own imprisoned militants.
Earlier this month, the Pakistani military claimed to have rescued Canadian backpacker Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their three children from kidnappers. The Haqqani network had held them for nearly five years with the intention of exchanging them for three prisoners in Kabul.
Anas Haqqani, a younger son of Jalaluddin, has been held by the Afghan government since 2014.
Soon after the hostages’ release, suspected U.S. air strikes reportedly targeted Haqqani hideouts in FATA’s Kurram tribal district last week.
Pakistan’s military hailed the strikes as causing “heavy losses to terrorists.” But it claimed the attacks had targeted militant hideouts inside Afghanistan.
“Better security coordination will take both countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan] toward enduring peace and stability [after] defeating the common enemy,” read an October 17 statement by the Pakistani military’s media wing.
Before the recent violence, Islamabad had seemed poised to ditch the Haqqanis. In August, U.S. President Donald Trump called on Islamabad to either side with U.S. efforts in Afghanistan or lose out by “continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif has since painted the network as a burden.
"It is very easy to say Pakistan is supporting Haqqanis and Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba,” he told a think tank audience in New York City. “They are liabilities. I accept that they are liabilities. But give us time to get rid of these liabilities.”
Islamabad’s changing stance has rekindled hopes for cooperation in Kabul.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media about the issue, an Afghan government adviser acknowledged relations between the Pakistani military and the Haqqanis were strained.
“Mutual fear and some degree of mistrust have developed between them,” he told Gandhara. “The Haqqanis fear Pakistan might make a compromise [and give them away] while Pakistan fears the Haqqanis could abandon them and instead side with Iran and Russia.”
Since the withdrawal of most NATO forces in late 2014, Afghan officials and analysts see Tehran and Moscow as extending increasing covert support to the Afghan Taliban.
The adviser, who is privy to most security-related issues and particularly the Taliban insurgency in his country, warned against reading recent developments as proof that Islamabad would abandon the network it has cherished as an ally through cycles of Afghan war since the 1970s.
But he says U.S. and international diplomatic pressure on Islamabad and aggressive Afghan and U.S. attacks on the insurgents might prompt the insurgents to take stock.
“When it comes to survival, it becomes a different consideration,” he said of the Haqqani network’s possible new course.
A wave of deadly Taliban attacks on Afghan security facilities last week that killed nearly 150 soldiers, cadets, and policemen had the hallmarks of a complex Haqqani attack, with groups of suicide bombers and fighters swarming the target.
Unlike its usual criticism of Pakistan for fomenting violence, Kabul instead blamed “terrorist groups” for the attacks.
In Pakistan, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa noted both neighbors have suffered from terrorism. “Such attacks shall not deter our resolve and commitments for peace in the region,” an October 20 statement quoted him as saying.
In North Waziristan, a beleaguered tribal district serving as the Haqqanis’ de facto headquarters for decades, there are signs of change. The Pakistani politician familiar with recent developments said the Haqqanis are seeking to reclaim old houses in Dande Darpakhel, near regional capital Miran Shah.
“The Haqqanis insisted on retaining their traditional abodes, but Rawalpindi wouldn’t agree,” he said, adding the disagreement is preventing Dande Darpakhel’s displaced residents from returning after a Pakistani military offensive forced them to flee in June 2014. Out of more than 1 million North Waziristan residents displaced, most have already returned.
At the time, Islamabad claimed thousands of militants were killed in the offensive and their networks crippled. But most militants appear to have survived the operation by moving across the border into Afghanistan or relocating elsewhere in Pakistan. The Haqqani network was seen as simply moving into neighboring Kurram tribal district where their hideouts have been repeatedly targeted in suspected U.S. drone attacks.
Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the first Afghan Islamists to rebel against the secular Afghan nationalist regime of Daud Khan in the 1970s. His base in Miran Shah, however, attracted global fame when he became one of the most effective guerrilla commanders fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, he joined the Taliban but retreated into Miran Shah after the demise of their regime in late 2001. During the next 13 years, Haqqani, his sons, extended clan, and loyalists emerged as the lynchpin of militant networks operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
With estimated thousands of battle-hardened fighters, the network launched attacks in Kabul and particularly targeted Indian, U.S., and NATO military and diplomatic facilities.
Its alliance with Pakistani secret services prompted former U.S. top soldier Admiral Mike Mullen to dub it a “veritable arm” of the Inter-Services Intelligence in 2011.
Washington now apparently wants to urge Islamabad to completely sever ties with the Haqqanis.
“We have made some very specific requests of Pakistan in order for them to take action to undermine the support that the Taliban receives and other terrorist organizations receive in Pakistan,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told journalists on October 23.
In an October 19 talk in Washington, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said the U.S. wants to give the Taliban “zero hope” that they can win on the battlefield. "To do that, you cannot have a safe haven in Pakistan," he said.
In Washington, Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan-Pakistan analyst for the U.S. State Department, says a breakdown in the alliance between the Pakistani military and the Haqqanis would be a paradigm shift.
“A serious rupture of ties between Pakistan and the Haqqanis would amount to a watershed event,” he told Gandhara. “Not only in Islamabad’s long-standing patronage of the Afghan insurgency but also in Pakistan’s efforts to bring about a reset in its strained relations with the U.S.”