LONDON (Reuters) - “Know that we will not lay down our arms once Afghanistan is free.” The fight must be pursued to liberate “the defenseless Muslims of the world” from Kashmir to Palestine to Samarkand, the speaker said.
It was 1988, a conference in Gujrat in Pakistan’s Punjab province; a time when the enthusiasm of the anti-Soviet jihad fused with internationalist causes popular among Arab fighters and the Pakistani backers of the mujahedeen to forge the ideology of al Qaeda.
The speaker was Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of one of the most formidable fighting forces in Afghanistan.
The story is told in an account of Haqqani’s links with al Qaeda in a book published this month: “Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus 1973-2012,” by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler.
Based partly on new primary sources, the book highlights one of the big failures of the Afghan war. Meant to defeat al Qaeda, the war has failed to break the resilience of the group with which it has the closest ties - the so-called Haqqani network.
As a result, western hopes that talks with the Afghan Taliban might persuade them to break with al Qaeda in return for a share of power face a serious flaw.
Al Qaeda is, and always has been, based in Haqqani territory, and the Haqqani network is excluded from those talks after Washington designated it a terrorist organization last year.
Western officials have long said the ties between the Haqqanis and al Qaeda make it hard to include them in a political settlement - contradicting Pakistani assertions they could play a useful role in Afghanistan after most foreign combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
But “Fountainhead of Jihad” is unusual in detailing quite how close those ties are.
“I was surprised at how often Jalaluddin Haqqani appeared as playing a vital role in al Qaeda’s history,” Brown told Reuters. “The Haqqanis were everywhere.”
Western officials have been holding intermittent talks with the Taliban that could lead to them opening a political office in Qatar, paving the way for more substantive negotiations.
But in a war where power is seeping out from Kabul to autonomous local actors, no one has worked out how to deal with the Haqqanis - beyond U.S. drone strikes - to ensure they do not provide a growing safe haven for al Qaeda on either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Based partly in North Waziristan but with business links running deep into Pakistan and the Gulf, the Haqqanis have managed to keep on the right side of the Pakistan army by focusing on Afghanistan, while retaining ties with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), waging war on the Pakistani state.
Such is their position at the center of the Islamist network that Pakistan could face rising TTP attacks were it to push the Haqqanis too hard. “They can’t go after them in a direct way without a serious backlash,” said Brown.
Washington has also accused the Pakistan army of using the Haqqanis to promote Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan, a charge it denies.
The book characterizes the Haqqanis both as providers of safe haven and “a platform for the delivery of violence”. This enabled them to amass wealth and power by providing services to a variety of players, from their alleged state sponsors in the Pakistan military, to al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
But as far back as the 1970s - when their secure base in southeastern Afghanistan made them useful allies for Pakistan to counter a hostile government in Kabul - the Haqqanis were always more than guns for hire.
“The Haqqanis’ brand indicates a fountainhead of ‘jihad’, of violence specifically sanctioned by Islam,” the book argues.
Crucially, the Haqqanis historically developed an outlook on global jihad which influenced al Qaeda as much as the Arab organization influenced the Afghan mujahideen.
During the anti-Soviet jihad, Jalaluddin Haqqani was the first Afghan Islamist known to have actively recruited Arab fighters into his ranks.
He was also the first to declare the Afghan jihad a duty for Muslims worldwide - preceding by at least four years the Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam whose 1984 writings are credited with being the foundation of modern global jihad.
In the mid-1980s, it was in Haqqani-dominated territory that Osama bin Laden established his first base in Afghanistan; it was through the Haqqanis that Arab fighters found their way to the battlefield; it was into this fervent atmosphere of jihad that al Qaeda would be born “in a form that was and remains to this day inextricably bound up with the Haqqani network.”
When the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, came under pressure from the United States to curb al Qaeda in the 1990s, bin Laden was able to use his relationship with the Haqqanis to resist their attempts to restrict his activities.
It was from Haqqani-controlled territory that bin Laden declared a jihad against “the Jews and Crusaders” in 1998.
The book’s authors make no definitive claims about whether the links between the Haqqanis and al Qaeda can be broken, but conclude “such change would mark a significant break with the group’s trajectory over the last two and a half decades.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence