New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 6, 2013
KHOST, Afghanistan » For more than a generation, the remote mountains of Khost and Paktia in eastern Afghanistan have been Haqqani country.
It was here that Jalaluddin Haqqani forged his militant network and his fame in a holy war against Soviet invaders, a fight still spoken of in reverential tones. And it was here that he could always count on manpower and support in a later campaign to bloody Western military forces after they drove his allies, the Taliban, from power in 2001.
But murmurs of discontent have broken out on the Haqqanis' home turf. As the Haqqanis themselves — Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin, his son, who now leads the group — shelter across the border in Pakistan, support has turned to resentment in some corners.
Most startlingly, leaders of Haqqani's native Zadran tribe in Khost province say they have formally broken with the feared militant network.
"The tribe now understands who Haqqani works for," said Faisal Rahim, a former Haqqani commander and head of the Zadran Tribal Council, referring to Pakistan's support for the network. "His war is not a holy war. It's a war for dollars, for Pakistani rupees and for power."
By all accounts, the Haqqani network remains a potent source of concern for U.S. military commanders and counterterrorism experts. It has kept up its barrage of attacks on Kabul and its global fundraising campaign. But the changing attitudes among some in Afghanistan show how much the years of war have changed the social landscape — and, particularly, how deep the distrust of foreign influence runs among Afghans, even when it comes to favorite sons.
The shift has come gradually over the past few years, as fighters loyal to the Haqqanis have killed an increasing number of the tribe's elders for refusing to afford them food and shelter, according to tribal authorities, former Haqqani commanders and Afghan officials. In September, an insurgent killed another Zadran elder as he prayed in a mosque in Khost City.
But even as Haqqani fighters have kept up their intimidation of the population, there has been an almost eerie drop in overall violence in Khost.
Violent episodes have fallen by nearly one-half since 2011. The main road leading into Khost, once rife with rockets and bombs, is suddenly passable. In the absence of steady attacks, the government is trying to develop, albeit slowly.
Some believe the Haqqanis are so confident of their grip on the region that they feel they can afford to mostly abandon it for now. Others say the group has become more focused on Kabul, the ultimate prize in the battle for influence, and on franchising its planning expertise to other insurgent groups across the country.
A recent visit to the region revealed a complex portrait of local feelings toward the Haqqanis.
The true effect of the network's official break with the Zadran tribe is hard to gauge, as the Haqqanis retain loyalty in the surrounding area and even within parts of the tribe. And any measure of the group's ability to keep moving munitions and fighters through the remote mountain passes of the Zadran Valley is difficult to come by, because the area is inaccessible to outsiders.
The network has come to resemble a mob in recent years, counterterrorism experts say, with a wide range of funding sources — from basic donations to businesses in the Persian Gulf states — and a sharp sense of how to protect its interests.
But the foreign support, particularly within Pakistan, has come at a cost among Afghans in Khost and Paktia. Many view Pakistan as a sovereign enemy, and the Pakistani security forces' implicit support for the Haqqanis has tested the loyalty of some people here.
"The Haqqanis are not allowing schools, clinics, roads or civil services, so why would people support him?" Mohammad Ali Zadran, a member of the Zadran tribe and the head of the Tribal Council Liaison Office, said in an interview in Khost, the provincial capital. "We are no longer that older generation who followed him blindly."
Zadran paused, then shared another, perhaps more prevalent feeling here: a sense of disappointment in the Haqqanis that is tempered by the group's historical importance. A stunning mosque that Jalaluddin Haqqani built near the center of Khost City after he seized it from the Soviet-backed government in 1991 stands as a testament to his influence and accomplishments here.
"Not long ago, Haqqani was a hero because he defeated the Communists," Zadran said. "Now he is an insurgent and a terrorist. We don't know who made him a hero back then or a terrorist now."
In the years since the group moved its headquarters to Pakistan, Sirajuddin, Haqqani's son, has taken operational control. The younger Haqqani has kept up a fierce militant campaign against U.S. forces and the United States' allies in the Afghan government, but he does not command the loyalty and admiration that his father does.
"Siraj is neither a scholar nor a tribal leader," said Hanif Shah, who was a top Haqqani commander during the anti-Soviet fight. "People only respect him because of his father."
Shah is now the chairman of the provincial peace council, but he still refers to Jalaluddin Haqqani as "sahib," a title of respect he used while serving under Haqqani's command.
"More than 13,000 people voted for me, and I admit it was not because of my own credibility," Shah said from his provincial offices. "It was because of my time with Haqqani sahib."
Years of drone strikes and concerted campaigns by U.S. special operations forces have put pressure on the midlevel Haqqani leaders who operate in Afghanistan, officials and local residents say. Strikes in Pakistan — including the recent killing of Sangeen Zadran, a high-ranking Haqqani commander — have also been effective.
But many here suggest that patience on the part of the Haqqanis, not the U.S. military offensives, is behind the drop in violence in the district centers of Khost and neighboring Paktia province over the past two years. And militant attacks, by the Haqqani network and other groups, have certainly not ceased altogether.
In Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia, the bazaar teemed with shoppers seeking rich melons, leather sandals and other goods as the smell of fried bread and sweets filled the air. Men with long, curly hair and traditional Afghan hats sauntered through the wide avenues with assault rifles draped over their shoulders, oblivious to the police presence.
Seated in his office above the Gardez bazaar, Abdul Hadi Hamas bemoaned the security situation.
"The government is weak and not strong enough to protect the population," said Hamas, the former head of the city's cultural society and a local commentator.
As if on cue, a huge boom shook the building, rattling the contents of the cramped office. After a brief pause, there was another, and three rifle shots popped nearby.
"See?" Hamas said, jumping out of his seat. "If this is what's happening in the provincial capital, you can imagine what is happening in the districts."
Even as residents here view the militants with fear, most express greater distrust of the U.S. forces. How is it, they ask, that the United States, with its vast resources and military might, cannot defeat the Taliban and groups like the Haqqanis?
Even among pro-government Afghans, conspiracy theories abound. Many suspect that the militants and the Americans are in cahoots to justify a continued coalition presence here, despite the thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent.
"If we both live long enough, we will see Haqqani sahib and the Americans shake hands," said Shah, the chairman of the provincial peace council.