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Friday, 23 September 2011

23 September 2011

I’d like you to meet Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin. They are, if American intelligence officials are to be believed, two of the most dangerous men in Afghanistan.

What’s more, they are – again, according to US officials – virtually run by Pakistani military intelligence. And they are at the centre of a blistering row between Washington and Islamabad which risks seriously derailing the US Afghan disengagement strategy.

The Haqqanis go back a long way. Jalaluddin first became an important figure during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, he was backed both by the US and by Pakistan – but he later made common cause with the Taliban and was appointed a minister in the Taliban government in the 1990s.

After the post-9/11 defeat of the Taliban by US-led forces, he took up arms against the Americans and has been fighting them ever since. He and his son are now thought to have anything between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters under their command, and they’ve been blamed for a series of audacious attacks against US targets. (Their network is also one of the suspects in the assassination this week of the former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a suicide bomber.)

But here’s where it gets really tricky. According to the outgoing chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking to a US Senate committee yesterday, the Haqqanis act as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI.

Yes, that’s the same ISI that’s meant to be working hand-in-glove with the US to confront the continuing insurgency in Afghanistan. And yes, it’s the same ISI that was widely criticised for either not knowing where Osama bin Laden was while he lived quietly in his Pakistani villa, or, even worse, knowing but doing nothing – or, yet worse still, actively protecting him.

US officials have claimed for some time that there are close links between the ISI and the Haqqanis. But, in the words of the New York Times today, “Admiral Mullen went further than any other American official in blaming the ISI for undermining the American military effort in Afghanistan.”

Note those words: “undermining the American military effort.” That’s serious stuff – and President Obama’s top security advisors are due to meet on Monday to discuss what to do next.

The problem is this: the US accepts that the insurgency in Afghanistan will never be defeated unless the insurgents are denied their bases across the border in Pakistan. But the ISI insists that as long as the fighters operate only in Afghanistan, they’re not Islamabad’s problem.

When I spoke to a former head of the ISI, General Asad Durrani, on the programme last night, he went even further: Pakistan should be supporting the anti-US opposition in Afghanistan, he said. If the US insists on launching drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, sometimes killing innocent Pakistani civilians, then the US and Pakistan are in a state of what he called “low-intensity conflict”.

That’s not what Washington wants to hear after having pumped billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan over the past decade. So yesterday a US Senate committee voted to tie any further aid to greater cooperation in fighting the Haqqanis. And that’s not going down at all well in Islamabad.

It was only last week that the US embassy in Kabul came under attack – the assault lasted 20 hours and ended with about 25 people dead, including the attackers. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen blamed the Haqqanis.

Three days earlier, more than 75 US troops were injured and two Afghan civilians were killed by a suicide truck bomber at a military base south-west of Kabul. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen blamed the Haqqanis for that attack as well.

According to a report in today’s Guardian, US intelligence had got wind of the impending truck bomb attack, and the American commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, personally asked the Pakistani army chief of staff to intervene to stop it. The report quotes a Western official as saying that General Kayani promised “to make a phone call.”

We’ve known ever since the Americans killed Osama bin Laden last May without tipping off the Pakistanis that they don’t trust their supposed Pakistani allies. Now, courtesy of Admiral Mullen, we know that Washington suspects the ISI of actively backing – even controlling – the Americans’ most dangerous enemy in Afghanistan.

It doesn’t bode well for the future of the US’s counter-insurgency strategy.

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