A new study says a key faction of the Taliban has been far closer to al-Qaida than some previous analyses have suggested, raising fresh questions about Pakistan's alleged support for terrorist groups and the prospects for peace negotiations on Afghanistan.
Most terrorism experts have long believed that the Taliban and al-Qaida, while sharing a radical ideology, have markedly different goals.
According to this notion, the Taliban fight primarily for local or national issues and is not that interested in the al-Qaida agenda of global jihad against the West.
But a just-released study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point seeks to dispel that notion, at least in regard to one key Taliban group. Don Rassler, lead author of the report, says the Haqqani network shares al-Qaida?s ideology and ambition.
"We challenge the conventional assumption or perception that the Haqqani network is primarily a local actor. And we find that the organization over its three-decade-long evolution in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has functioned as a strategic enabler of regional, local, and global forms of militancy," says Rassler. "So what we?ve come down and found was that the Haqqani network while, yes, being a local actor and pragmatic as well, is also committed to the philosophy of expansive and global jihad as perpetrated by al-Qaida."
The Taliban is not a single monolithic organization, but more of a collection of networks. Of those, the Haqqani network is seen as the most dangerous, believed responsible for some of the most spectacular and bloody terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.
The network was born out of a tribal and familial group, headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. His son, Sirajuddin, is now believed to head the group.
It operates in a three-province area of southeastern Afghanistan known as Loya Paktia but takes refuge in North Waziristan in the Pakistan?s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Rassler says the ties between the Haqqanis and what would become al-Qaida go back some 30 years. He says that when the Taliban was in power and playing host to al-Qaida in the 1990s, the Haqqanis were closely allied with the Taliban but still maintained a large degree of autonomy.
But, he adds, there were divisions between the Haqqanis and the Taliban of what is now known as the Quetta Shura, over their relationships with al-Qaida. The Haqqanis, Rassler says, were far more welcoming to Osama bin Laden and foreign fighters than the Quetta Shura, which was more suspicious of outsiders.
"This isn?t to say that the Quetta Shura Taliban did not have a relationship with al-Qaida. They clearly did. However, that relationship was actually a lot more contentious than the close relationship that the Haqqani network and al-Qaida had," Rassler says. "And what we see is that the Haqqani network during the late 1990s was used by individuals like Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida to circumvent restrictions that were placed on them by the Taliban regime or what is known today as the Quetta Shura Taliban."
The Haqqanis also had strong support from Pakistan during the anti-Soviet fight in Afghanistan, receiving arms and money during that time. Today, he says, it appears that Pakistan continues to use the Haqqani network as both a proxy against Indian influence in Afghanistan and as leverage in Pakistan?s semi-autonomous tribal areas.
"The Haqqani network has historically had a close relationship with the Pakistani state, and over time has functioned as a proxy for Pakistan?s ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. There?s a variety of evidence to suggest that these ties are continuing and carry forward," says Rassler.
Pakistan has long had ties to the Taliban, and is said by some experts to have founded the group as a strategic wedge to maintain influence in Afghanistan. But Rassler says Pakistan?s history with the Haqqanis, and the Haqqani network?s relationship with al-Qaida, should ring some alarm bells.
"This raises a lot of hard questions about Pakistan?s potential relationship with al-Qaida. Particularly when we see Pakistan?s relationship, deep relationship, with the Haqqani network, and that the Haqqani network has functioned as the primary enabler of al-Qaida for over 20 years, it suggests that Pakistan could have played a stronger role in the development of al-Qaida than has thus far been recognized," he says.
Osama bin Laden was found and killed by a U.S. raiding party in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, a military garrison town near Islamabad. How he managed to remain undetected there and who might have been protecting him has never been publicly explained.
Rassler notes that Pakistan has put forward the Haqqani network for a role in any potential talks on a political settlement in Afghanistan. He says the Afghan and U.S. governments will have to tread very carefully.
"While the Haqqanis might be central to Pakistan, given their history with al-Qaida, it really illustrates that U.S. and Pakistani goals for the future of Afghanistan are actually in tension. And this is challenging for our efforts to withdraw from the region as well as reconciling with the Taliban," Rassler says. "Any decision to reconcile with the Haqqani network really needs to be informed by the deep history and operational integration between the Haqqanis and al-Qaida, and more recently the Pakistani Taliban."
Rassler says that negotiations with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura Taliban pose less risk than talks with the Haqqani network since the Quetta Shura has not had the same close relationship with al-Qaida as the Haqqanis.