24 September 2018

Pakistan continues to harbor Taliban, including al Qaeda-linked Haqqanis

Pakistan continues to allow the Taliban, including the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, to operate on its soil, despite pressure from the US government. That is one of the conclusions drawn in the State Department’s newly released Country Reports on Terrorism 2017.

“The Pakistani government pledged support to political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban but did not restrict the Afghan Taliban and HQN [Haqqani Network] from operating in Pakistan-based safe havens and threatening U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan,” the report reads.

The Trump administration has attempted to pressure Pakistan into changing its longstanding policy. During a speech on Aug. 21, 2017, President Trump announced his plan for the war in Afghanistan. One “pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan,” Trump said. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”

“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan,” Trump said. “It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.” He blasted Pakistan for “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting” and harboring “militants and terrorists who target U.S. servicemembers and officials,” even as the Pakistani government received American aid.

According to the State Department’s new report, the Trump administration followed through on the president’s warning. “From August to December 2017, the Trump Administration placed a pause on spending new Foreign Military Financing for Pakistan, holding these funds until Pakistan addressed key U.S. concerns, including the threat posed by the Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups that enjoyed safe haven with Pakistan,” the report reads.

Approximately $512.4 million in aid for Pakistan was appropriated for 2017, and $242.3 million of this was earmarked for “Foreign Military Financing.” Some portion of this was withheld during the latter half of 2017, though the report doesn’t make it clear how much.

However, nothing changed. “Pakistan did not adequately address these concerns in 2017,” Foggy Bottom found.

The Taliban continues to enjoy its Pakistani safe haven, from which some of the group’s most senior leaders direct the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan continued to experience aggressive and coordinated attacks by the Afghan Taliban, including the affiliated Haqqani Network (HQN) and other insurgent and terrorist groups,” the State Department found. “A number of these attacks were planned and launched from safe havens in Pakistan.”

State says that both “Afghan and Pakistani forces continued to contest AQ’s presence in the region,” explaining that “Pakistan’s military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) further degraded the group’s freedom to operate.”

The Pakistani military operations undoubtedly restricted al Qaeda’s ability to operate in northern Pakistan. But al Qaeda has operated elsewhere in Pakistan. Moreover, the group began relocating operatives from the FATA years ago. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that the al Qaeda founder ordered his men to relocate out of northern Pakistan in 2010, if not earlier.

President Obama also noted that al Qaeda relocated into Afghanistan as a result of the Pakistani military campaign. “Pressure from Pakistan has resulted in more al Qaeda coming into Afghanistan,” Obama said in an Oct. 15, 2015 speech, during which he announced that he would keep a residual American force in Afghanistan.

The Taliban-Haqqani-Al Qaeda axis

Pakistan’s ongoing sponsorship of the Haqqani Network (HQN), an integral part of the Taliban, likely benefits al Qaeda. Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 notes that “HQN’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani established a relationship with Usama bin Laden in the mid-1980s, and joined the Taliban in 1995.” The Taliban recently announced Jalaluddin Haqqani’s death and al Qaeda was quick to eulogize him as Osama bin Laden’s “brother.”

“After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001,” State new report reminds readers, “Jalaluddin retreated to Pakistan where, under the leadership of Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group continued to direct and conduct terrorist activity in Afghanistan.”

Sirajuddin Haqqani was named the deputy emir of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in mid-2015. Osama bin Laden’s files reveal that al Qaeda was cooperating with Siraj and his men in operations inside Afghanistan in mid-2010. In Dec. 2016, the Taliban’s Manba al-Jihad Media outfit (which has long served the Haqqanis) released a video featuring an audio message from Siraj, as well as a senior al Qaeda ideologue. That same video celebrated the Taliban’s historical alliance with al Qaeda. And in its eulogy for Jalaluddin, al Qaeda’s general command lauded Siraj’s leadership role within the Taliban, saying it takes “solace in the fact” that Siraj is the deputy to the Taliban’s emir.

The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 notes that both the “Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan [the Pakistani Taliban] and the Haqqani Network…have ties to AQ.” The US government has also revealed significant connections between the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda in a series of terrorist designations. Haqqani facilitators who also assist al Qaeda are based in various areas of Pakistan, including Peshawar.

Pakistan has assisted the US in various counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the past. But that is not all there is to the story.

By granting the Haqqanis and other Taliban leaders safe haven, Pakistan is harboring some of al Qaeda’s most important allies in the region.

The UN recently reported that al Qaeda and the Taliban remain “closely allied” and their “alliance…remains firm.” Indeed, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s overall leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada. Although Akhundzada’s whereabouts is not widely known, his predecessor was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in 2016.

The Taliban, including the Haqqanis, is not the only jihadist group that is still supported by Pakistan. Although the government has cracked down on groups that attack the Pakistani state, other jihadists continue to enjoy freedom of movement — just as long as their terror is directed elsewhere.

The State Department’s report notes that although Pakistan says its policy is to “ensure that no armed militias are allowed to function in the country,” this isn’t the case. According to Foggy Bottom, “several terrorist groups focused on attacks outside of the country continued to operate from Pakistani soil in 2017.” In addition to the Haqqani Network, these organizations include Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), both of which have targeted Indian interests in Kashmir and elsewhere. Historically, both the LeT and JeM have their own ties to al Qaeda.

“The government failed to significantly limit LeT and JeM from openly raising money, recruiting, and training in Pakistan – although Pakistan’s Elections Commission refused to allow a LeT‑affiliated group register as a political party,” Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 reads. “In November, a Pakistani court ordered the release of Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.” Saeed is the longtime head of LeT and its various front groups. He praised Osama bin Laden as a “martyr” shortly after the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Despite Pakistan’s support for al Qaeda’s allies, the State Department reports that $344.6 million in aid has been requested for fiscal year 2018. This figure includes approximately $100 million in “Foreign Military Financing.” Although this is less than in past years, it is still a significant sum.

Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 also documents the heavy toll terrorism has taken inside Pakistan itself, as jihadi groups have attacked parts of the Pakistani state, as well as civilians. The Pakistani Taliban, which has its own ties to al Qaeda, and the Islamic State’s regional arm regularly launch operations inside the country.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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