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How the US Created the Afghan War, and Then Lost It

The unreported story of how the Haqqani Network became America's greatest enemy.

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 5:14 PM EDT

Reconciliation and Flames: 2002

In six weeks, America's campaign to kill Jalaluddin Haqqani had resulted in 159 dead civilians, a flattened village, 37 destroyed homes, a fractured tribal leadership, and the ascendancy of one man, Pacha Khan Zadran, as the most important player in Loya Paktia. Meanwhile, Haqqani and his followers were in hiding in Pakistan, watching the three provinces in which they had enjoyed prestige and riches slip out of their grasp. Life inside Pakistan proved little better. While Haqqani hid in Peshawar, his family had retreated to a suburb of Miram Shah, the capital of the tribal agency of North Waziristan. The Pakistani military was, at that point, working closely with Washington to round up al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. In December, its troops raided the Miram Shah home, arresting his son Sirajuddin. Weeks later, they stormed the Peshawar hideout, with Haqqani barely escaping.

In the following months, US Special Forces teams staged secret incursions into Pakistan to raid Haqqani homes and seminaries, inciting anger in the local community. "We will never allow anybody to destroy our religious institutions," said Hajji Salam Wazir, a tribal elder. "I am surprised how the Americans use the Muslims," he added. "Until yesterday, Haqqani was a hero and freedom fighter for the US, and they sent their own military experts to train him. Now he is a terrorist."

Caught between the threat of Pakistani arrest and American assassination, Haqqani decided to reach out again to the new Afghan government. In March 2002, he dispatched his brother Ibrahim Omari to Afghanistan in a bid to reconcile with Karzai. In a public ceremony attended by hundreds of tribal elders and local dignitaries, Omari pledged allegiance to the new government and issued a call for Haqqani followers to return from Pakistan and work with the authorities. He was then appointed head of Paktia province's tribal council, an institution meant to link village elders with the Kabul government. Soon, hundreds of Haqqani's old sub-commanders, who had been hiding in fear of PKZ, came in from the cold.

Malem Jan was one of them. With long, curling eyelashes, daubs of kohl under his eyes, and polished fingernails, he had a taste for dancing, which he often performed solo to the delight of his comrades. He was also an accomplished commander, having fought under Haqqani during the early 1990s against the Communist government. In the spring of 2002, he rounded up his old fighters and soon they were working for the CIA as a paramilitary unit, providing security for American missions in search of al-Qaeda.

"It was a good time," Malem Jan recalled. "We were working closely together, sharing meals, sharing gossip." The CIA militias, of which there were a half-dozen in Loya Paktia, would soon enough grow into a 3,000-man shadow army, collectively called Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, which operates to this day outside of the Afghan government's jurisdiction and answers only to US forces.

Contacts between Haqqani and the CIA were rekindled, with his brother Omari acting as the intermediary. Plans were made for a meeting between Haqqani himself and Agency representatives. Key to a deal was the assurance that he would be allowed to return to Afghanistan and take part in Loya Paktia politics. The trouble was PKZ, who viewed such maneuverings with jealousy and was still angling to control the three provinces outright. "I must be allowed to take over as governor," he declared to the Austin American-Statesman. "If it's not me, it will be someone from al-Qaeda."

When Karzai appointed a new man to head Paktia province, PKZ made his move, laying siege to the governor's mansion and killing 25 people. At the same time, he convinced American military officers to clamp down on the Haqqanis. One evening, as Omari was visiting the house of a government official near Kabul, US Special Operations forces showed up—without the CIA's knowledge—and arrested him. That week, similar arrests of Haqqani followers took place across Loya Paktia.

As soon as Malem Jan realized what was happening, he fled to Pakistan, but a number of his subordinates were rounded up and dispatched to the new American prison at Bagram Air Base, a quickly expanding military command center. Swat Khan, his deputy, said that in his initial questioning he was hung by his wrists from the ceiling. Later, he was beaten. Finally, he was shipped to Guantanamo, where, a few years later, he attempted suicide. "It's all there when I close my eyes," he told me after his release. "The nightmare never leaves me."

It took the CIA months to realize that Omari was in an American lockup. When he was finally released, he looked like a different man. It was a cold autumn day, on a hilltop near the town of Khost, when hundreds of tribal elders and government officials came to receive him. There were dignitaries from villages that had been bombed and attacked by American planes and PKZ's forces, elders who had survived the disastrous convoy, farmers whose sons had been sent to Guantanamo.

"At first I couldn't even recognize him," said tribal elder Malek Sardar. "He wouldn't talk about what they had done to him. It seemed too painful to ask." Slowly, his voice quivering, Omari addressed the crowd. There was no hope in this government or the Americans, he told them. Some elders shouted insults at Karzai. Others said the Americans were no different from the Russians. Omari swore he would never set foot on Afghan soil again until it was free of "the infidels." Not long after, he left for Pakistan.

The Haqqani Network: 2004-2014

In the summer of 2004, Malem Jan was sitting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the second son of Jalaluddin, in their Pakistani base in the North Waziristan town of Miram Shah when they heard their names on the BBC. The Americans were offering $250,000 and $200,000, respectively, as rewards for information leading to their capture. Introverted, religious, and fiercely intelligent, the younger Haqqani was rapidly taking over the reins of his ailing father's network, and he smiled at the thought of his deputy, Malem Jan, fetching a larger reward than him. "They say he who has the highest bounty on his head is the closest to God," he joked.

The Haqqanis were now in open war against the Americans. Whereas his father had presided over Loya Paktia with popular support, Sirajuddin ruled from the shadows through fear—assassinations, kidnappings, extortion, and roadside bombings. Miram Shah had become the world capital of radical jihad, home to al-Qaeda and an assortment of Chechens, Uzbeks, and Europeans fighting under Haqqani's banner. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, was now supporting the Haqqanis as way of influencing events inside Afghanistan, even as Islamabad publicly allied with Washington.

By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the US had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight. By 2010, the Haqqani network was the deadliest wing of an increasingly violent insurgency that was claiming the lives of countless civilians, as well as American soldiers. It was hard, by then, even to recall that, back in mid-2002, US forces had been without an enemy: the remnants of al-Qaeda had fled to Pakistan, the Taliban had collapsed, and the Haqqanis were attempting to reconcile.

If Pacha Khan Zadran was able to convince his American allies otherwise, it was because of the logic of the war on terror. "Terrorism" was understood not as a set of tactics (hostage taking, assassinations, car bombings), but as something rooted in the identity of its perpetrators, like height or temperament. This meant that, once designated a "terrorist," Jalaluddin Haqqani could never shake the label, even when he attempted to reconcile. On the other hand, when PKZ eventually broke with the Karzai government and turned his guns on the Americans, he was labeled not a terrorist but a "renegade." (He eventually fled to Pakistan, was arrested, turned over to the Afghan government, and later was elected to parliament.)

In recent years, the US has waged an intense drone campaign against the Haqqanis in their North Waziristan stronghold. Dozens of their commanders have been killed, including their top military chief, Badruddin Haqqani. Many others have been arrested. Today, the Haqqani network is a shadow of its former self.

The group's influence, however, lives on. In 2012, I received a phone call from the family of Arsala Rahmani, the Afghan senator with whom I'd become friendly. That morning, a gunman had pulled up alongside Rahmani's vehicle, idling in a crowded intersection, and shot him point blank. Later, I learned that a former Haqqani-aligned commander named Najibullah was the culprit; he had launched his own faction, Mahaz-e-Fedayeen, whose ruthlessness made the Haqqanis look like amateurs. Now in the crosshairs of US counterterrorism forces, his group is but the latest enemy in a war that never seems to end.

Anand Gopal, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the just-published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books). He reported on the Afghan War for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor and is now a fellow of the New America Foundation. You can follow him on twitter @Anand_Gopal_.

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