It took author Gretchen Peters two years working with a team of researchers to compile a detailed report on the Haqqani network. Published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, it is a comprehensive study of the Haqqani’s business interests in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf, defining them as much as a criminal mafia as an Afghan militant group. It took me an hour to read it through. Yet when I tweeted a link to the report with the suggestion those with strong views on drones should read it – the Haqqanis’ base in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been the primary target of U.S. drone strikes – the answers came within minutes. “I assume u probably never met a minor or a woman who lost the head of the family in drone attack as ‘colateral dmg,” said the first response.
It is symptomatic of the debate on drones that it is so often reduced to this; the civilian casualty becomes a cipher for opposition to U.S. drone strikes, discussed in isolation from the men the missiles were intended to hit. In Pakistan, outrage is selective; someone killed by a U.S. drone strike is ascribed more value than someone killed by militants or by the Pakistan army, as though human life can be valued not according to the identity of the person who died, but by who pulled the trigger. The debate in the west is not much better; much of it is about what the ethics of drone strikes mean for the United States with little reference to people on the ground; the greatest anxiety is reserved for the use of drones against U.S. citizens abroad.
The report on the Haqqani network provides an opportunity to escape the narrowness of the drones debate – which has become repetitive, polarising and politicised – and reframe it in terms of what to do about an organisation which is seen by Washington as the most dangerous group operating in Afghanistan, and which also exercises a powerful and corrosive influence within Pakistan. The report does not set out to assess drone strikes. Its details, like everything else about Pakistan, will be contested and different conclusions drawn from the same material. But it does raise serious questions about the arguments made by those who say – and this now includes the Pakistani government – that ending drone strikes will improve the situation.
For a start, the report offers a powerful counter-argument to the conventional anti-drones narrative that these encourage militancy in the tribal areas and that if only they were halted and peace talks held, a political solution might be found. It describes the Haqqanis as “war profiteers” who have a strong financial interest in the continuation of conflict, since this creates the conditions which allow them to run criminal activities from extortion to kidnapping to drug trafficking to money laundering, alongside legal activities in business sectors, including import-export, transport, real estate and construction in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf and beyond.
Far from being the wayward tribals popularly conceived of as the targets of drone strikes, or indeed even ideologically driven fighters, “the broad range of business activities in which the Haqqanis engage suggests that the pursuit of wealth and power may be just as important to network leaders as the Islamist and nationalistic ideals for which the Haqqanis claim to fight.” Indeed – in an ironic echo of accusations often thrown at Pakistani government – the report describes them as the “conflict elite”, driven by self-interest and greed. They would have little incentive to support a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan or in FATA; but rather a clear financial stake in disrupting any moves towards peace.
The report is firm in its conclusion that while the Haqqanis operate in Afghanistan, their base is securely in Pakistan – an assertion sometimes challenged by Pakistani officials. And these bases are not, as again sometimes popularly imagined, in rugged mountain training camps, but in comfortable houses both in the main town in North Waziristan and in mainland Pakistan. “The network’s rear organisational base is located in Miran Shah, in the North Waziristan Agency of the FATA. Most key decisions—whether military, strategic or financial—are made from family compounds and other training bases in North Waziristan and Haqqani safe houses deep inside Pakistani territory.” The bulk of its logistical supplies, it says, come from Pakistan; it operates across the country, not just in the tribal areas, command and control of its financial operations are in Pakistan.
The idea of the Haqqanis having safe houses inside mainland Pakistan has been discussed anecdotally for years. The New York Times last month quoted a western diplomat as saying “he had seen credible reports that the group’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, dined openly in a (Islamabad) city centre restaurant this year.”
But the comprehensive collation of their activities in the report shows the scale of the challenge in uprooting an organisation which retains close links to al Qaeda and thrives on Pakistan’s extensive black economy. A comparison in the report to the Sicilian mafia, which emerged in a weak Italian state in the 19th century, does not bode well given how deeply the mafia penetrated mainland Italian politics. In a perfect world, Pakistan would become a clean, documented and legal economy which squeezed the space for groups like the Haqqanis and others to operate; and where their leaders could be arrested and given a fair trial rather than being targetted by drones. We know that is not going to happen any time soon.
So what can be done? The report is relatively measured in the extent to which it argues the Haqqani network enjoys the support of the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency -the main bone of contention between Pakistan and the United States. It says it is “unlikely the Haqqanis would survive if the Pakistani state turned against them”, and describes collusion ranging from tacit approval to the direct involvement of former ISI officials to allowing members of the group to travel to the Gulf via Pakistani airports for fund-raising activities.
“However, the relationship between the Haqqanis and the ISI is complex and often fraught with more tension than outsiders imagine,” it says. No longer reliant on the ISI for funding, it does not take direct orders, though the two might cooperate when it suited, the report says. Specifically, it acknowledges the Pakistan military’s own options for tackling the Haqqanis are limited – an argument often made by security officials who say if they take on all militant groups at once they will face a severe backlash in Pakistani cities. The Haqqanis have yet to target Pakistan itself – one of the many reasons why it is left alone – but the report recognises that could change.
“There are signs that the relationship is deteriorating, however. Pakistani authorities routinely arrest Haqqani network leaders and limit their capacity to operate, two issues which infuriate the Haqqani leadership. The Haqqanis, meanwhile, openly collaborate with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), a group that has repeatedly targeted ISI and Pakistan military installations, killing dozens of intelligence officers and military personnel. Some analysts even predict that a withdrawal of U.S. forces could prompt the Haqqanis to turn their guns on Islamabad.”
So far, U.S. drone strikes appear to be keeping the Haqqanis under pressure, making it harder for the group – limited to a small number at the top – to travel, operate and communicate. Efforts to squeeze the Haqqanis’ business interests would complement this; but given the difficulty of the task, would not alone be a substitute. “The small and centralized nature of the decision-making process and fund distribution network could be a major vulnerability for the Haqqanis, suggesting the possibility that the killing or capture of key senior figures, in particular those who handle financial matters and supplies, might significantly degrade overall network capacity.”
So the question is really not whether drone strikes are right or wrong; or indeed in the interminable debates of exactly how many civilian casualties they cause (without free access to FATA we don’t know for sure; we know only that they have the precision capability to cause fewer casualties than other weapons), but what are opponents of drones offering as an alternative?
Bringing the rule of law to FATA, working on peace negotiations in Afghanistan, and squeezing Haqqani finances in Pakistan and the Gulf should all help. The huge sums of foreign money pumped into the region to fund the war will begin to dry up as U.S. troops withdraw, reducing earnings for those like the Haqqanis who profit from a war economy. But – at least on the basis of this report – none of this will be enough.
The military alternative which has been floated by Pakistan – replacing U.S. drones with air strikes by Pakistani F-16s – would seem even worse – increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties and of a backlash against Pakistani cities (the best that can be said for this alternative is that it would allow Pakistanis to take ownership of the war and reduce anti-Americanism; a debateable point which deserves to be discussed separately).
And those who think the Haqqanis might be coaxed into peace talks if only we end drone strikes and ask nicely enough might want to consider what they do to their enemies. In one particularly grisly incident, the report says, a Haqqani death squad wreaked revenge on two men accused of helping U.S. forces capture one of their leaders in Afghanistan. “When their bodies were found, one victim had been disembowelled; both had been crushed by boulders, had scalding iron rods shoved through their legs, and shot through the head.”
(Reuters file photo)