Inside Afghanistan's most dangerous insurgent group

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — The Haqqani network's close ties to Pakistani intelligence and Arab jihadist groups go back a long way, to the dusty mountains of Paktia Province near the Pakistani border, where the group's putative leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, first rose to fame.

Born into an influential clan of the Zadran tribe, Haqqani became a legendary war hero for his exploits against the Soviets in the 1980s. Many in the southeastern provinces of the country fondly recall his name, even those who are now in the government.

"He is a virtuous and noble man, with an unwavering belief in Islam," said Hanif Shah Hosseini, a member of the Afghan parliament from Khost and one of Haqqani's childhood friends.

Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, who worked closely with the anti-Soviet insurgency (inspiring the 2007 Tom Hanks film "Charlie Wilson's War"), once called Haqqani "goodness personified."

In the 1980s, Haqqani quickly established himself as one of the preeminent mujaheddin field commanders.

"He could kill Russians like you wouldn't believe," said a U.S. intelligence officer who knew him at the time. The Central Intelligence Agency forged close links with him, and through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency funneled large amounts of weapons and cash his way.

Unlike many other mujaheddin commanders, Haqqani was often in the line of fire himself, and he at times retreated to the Persian Gulf to convalesce from his wounds. It's believed that his trips to the Gulf helped him forge close links with Arab militants, and he became one of the first Afghan commanders to host foreign fighters. His ties to Arab fighters and al Qaida continue to this day, U.S. and Afghan military officials said.

Although he joined the Taliban government in the mid-1990s, Haqqani was never formally part of the Taliban movement. "The Taliban wanted to create an Islamic emirate, but Haqqani favored an Islamic republic," said Maulavi Saadullah, who was a close friend at the time.

"During those years, (Haqqani's son) Siraj used to complain to me about how heavy-handed and dogmatic the Taliban were in their interpretation of Islam," recalls Waheed Muzjda, an Afghan-based policy analyst who knew the family.

Still, the Taliban saw Haqqani's usefulness as a commander and enlisted him in the fight against the rival Northern Alliance. On the eve of the American invasion in October 2001, he was named the commander for all Taliban forces.

For a few months after the U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, Haqqani was on the fence about whether to join the new Afghan government or fight against it, according to those who knew him at the time.

A series of American bombing raids killed members of Haqqani's family, and he disappeared across the Pakistani border, telling friends that, "The Americans won't let me live in peace," according to Mr. Saadullah. American officials, however, countered that he was helping al Qaida fighters escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan and wasn't a neutral figure.

His close ties to Pakistan's ISI and to Arab militants enabled him to raise funds and build training camps. Soon he was able to fight independently against the Americans, without help from the Taliban leadership, and by 2007, his network had emerged as a distinct insurgent group.

(Gopal is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.)


Afghan drug trade thrives with help, and neglect, of officials

Commentary: Avoiding an Afghanistan quagmire

Love story: United by West Point, divided by the Hindu Kush

Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington

Related stories from The Olympian