The South Asia Channel

Fountainhead of Jihad

Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (London: Hurst Publishers, 2013). 

On June 10, 2013, 13 suicide bombers assaulted two high-profile targets in Afghanistan -- the airport in Kabul and the capital of Zabul province in the south. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the alleged involvement of the Haqqani network should surprise no one. Considered by many to be the most lethal insurgent force in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network is the bête noire of the United States and a favored proxy of America's erstwhile ally Pakistan. The successful degradation of al-Qaeda Central and the 2014 drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will enable Washington to reorder its priorities, and will necessitate a revision of its counterterrorism architecture in South Asia. It is tempting to believe the Haqqani network will no longer be a significant concern for the United States once the drawdown occurs, but such a view is predicated on the assessment that the Haqqanis are nothing more than a local insurgent force intent on reclaiming territory in Loya Paktia, the southeastern Afghan provinces located along the border with Pakistan.

Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012, a new book by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, suggests this view drastically underestimates the Haqqani network and misunderstands its motivations. The authors draw on a raft of primary sources, including the Haqqani network's magazine Manba' al-Jihadi, from which the book takes its title. Mr. Brown used to work for the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point and Mr. Rassler still does, and they make good use of declassified documents hosted on the CTC's Harmony Database. In doing so, the authors paint the most complete portrait of the Haqqani network to date. The book would have benefitted all the more had they been able to conduct field research, especially in terms of teasing out relations between the Haqqani network and different power centers in Pakistan. Doing so would have been complicated for two researchers associated with the CTC, however, and it is questionable whether such a trip would have borne fruit given that affiliation and the sensitive subject matter. Moreover, this does not detract from the book's value in terms of understanding the Haqqani network's importance to Pakistan, to the myriad militant groups based there, or to the evolution of the global jihadist movement.

The Pakistani military's preoccupation with using jihadist proxies to achieve its geopolitical aims and the utility groups like the Haqqani network offer in this regard is the most significant barrier to dismantling the militant infrastructure in Pakistan. However, it is not the only one. The security establishment continues to selectively support some militants and target others. Its approach toward these groups is predicated not only on the geopolitical utility they provide, but also on whether they threaten the state and the level of perceived control over them. As Brown and Rassler aptly demonstrate, at an organizational level, the Haqqani network does not attack the Pakistani state. Moreover, it provides an important interface with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is leading the insurgency against the state. This includes helping the military manage hostilities and providing access to TTP leaders. Haqqani leaders also attempt to shape the priorities of militant groups in the tribal areas. For example, as the authors relate, leaders from the Haqqani network helped create the Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahidin, an umbrella group comprised of Afghan and Pakistani militant leaders formed to reorient violence toward Afghanistan. In short, the Haqqani network has utility for the Pakistani security establishment on both sides of the Durand Line.

At the same time, while the Haqqani network has worked to limit any public association with the insurgency in Pakistan, it is a crucial enabler for al-Qaeda, the TTP, and other groups. This includes providing access to training, expertise, resources, and the prestige that comes from participating in certain operations in Afghanistan. In other words, the Haqqani network contributes indirectly to insurgency in Pakistan by augmenting the capabilities of those who are waging it.

Pakistan's ability to do much about this, however, is limited by the need to maintain the Haqqani network as an asset in Afghanistan and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as by the fear of what a real crackdown would entail. Brown and Rassler do an admirable job of exploring these contradictions. The reader is left wanting to know more about how Pakistan perceives the group in light of this situation, how it seeks to optimize influence over the Haqqani network, how the influence it does have translates beyond attacks in Afghanistan, and what this might bode for the future. To be fair, the relationship between the Haqqanis and their state sponsors is the subject of significant debate and most open source accounts offer only limited insights on these issues.

While acknowledging the Haqqani network is primarily a local actor with local concerns in Afghanistan and teasing out its complex relationship with Pakistan, Fountainhead of Jihad devotes significant attention to the strategic effect of the group's support for al-Qaeda's global jihad. This risks inflating its focus or influence in this regard, but the authors rarely overplay their hand. Instead, they ably illustrate that the threats a militant organization poses should not be judged solely by where it directs violence. The conventional wisdom is that the Haqqanis simply host al-Qaeda, but the authors paint a much more intimate picture to illustrate that the group has served, and continues to serve, as a platform from which al-Qaeda wages its global jihad.

Using primary source documents, the authors illustrate that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the patriarch of the network that bears his name, always had a global outlook. He endorsed the idea that waging jihad against the Soviets was a universal obligation several years before Abdullah Azzam issued his famous fatwa to that effect. During the 1990s, when the Taliban was placing constraints on al-Qaeda, it found freedom to maneuver in Haqqani-controlled territory. Viewed through this prism, the group's relationship with al-Qaeda appears driven by belief and ideological solidarity rather than simply long-standing personal connection. Those seeking a settlement in Afghanistan that both includes the Haqqanis and isolates al-Qaeda would be wise to take note of this data point.

But the group itself may face difficult decisions in the future. The book's subtitle -- The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 -- says it all. It has been a "nexus player" since 1973, and the ability to leverage this position has enabled the Haqqani network to become a powerful player as well. However, its nexus position inevitably introduces tensions into the organization: between its ties to the Pakistani state and to organizations like al-Qaeda and the TTP; and between a local agenda and a more global one. As the U.S. draws down, one cannot help but wonder whether the Haqqanis will be satisfied with their position as a platform for revolutionary and global jihad or if the next generation might yearn for more.

The authors do not dwell on this issue or proffer predictions for how the Haqqani network might evolve, but they provide a solid foundation for those charged with contemplating its future and that of the region. In doing so, Brown and Rassler have written a book that should be required reading for anyone working on security issues in South Asia or the evolution of the jihadist movement globally.

Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His next book, provisionally titled Peripheral Jihads, explores how jihadist groups in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa adapted to the post-9/11 environment and will be published by Columbia University Press in 2014.

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