Since the Haqqani network’s recent attack on the American embassy in Kabul, the Pakistan-based group is getting more and more attention. Before that, Western news agencies did not seem to care much about Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj. Yet, Jalaluddin has been around for three decades, fought in the Soviet-Afghan war and held a Minister position in the Taliban government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently admitted that American diplomats tried to reach out to the network, to find a solution to what has become a major hindrance to a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict. The US is currently pushing forward a twofold strategy. The idea is to have Pakistan “squeeze” the Haqqani network while the US tries to reach out to the group. Although some might view this kind of “good cop bad cop” strategy schizophrenic and counterproductive, Clinton does not see it as contradictory. I do not necessarily disagree with her (on Clinton, Pakistan and the Haqqani network, see the following articles: US Boosts Pressure on Pakistan over Terrorism, Pakistani General Warns U.S. on Haqqani Network, and Clinton Holds ‘Frank’ Talks in Pakistan).
What is maybe even more interesting in my opinion is how the “Haqqani problem” (and the American response to it) might play out on the local level. The US quest for “good Zadrans” who could counterbalance the network’s influence among the Zadran tribe of Loya Paktia is very likely to impact the state-building process.
Back in 2001, a powerful militia leader named Pacha Khan Zadran worked with the American forces to drive the Taliban out of the region. He subsequently participated in the Bonn conference and the Loya Jirga process and was even appointed governor of Paktia province by President Karzai. He then engaged in a conflict with a coalition of rival commanders and Karzai started to publicly depict him as an outlaw and a ruthless warlord. Long story short, Pacha Khan’s relationship with the central government in general, and the President in particular, has been rocky to say the least, marked with tumultuous episodes. Because of this unfortunate relationship, his attempt to establish himself as an important political player in the 2001 environment has been fairly unsuccessful so far. With the Haqqani issue heating up, he is now trying to redeem himself to convince the United States to give him a leading role in local police forces, posing a tricking dilemma for counterinsurgents.
Pacha Khan Zadran perfectly symbolizes the quandary as to what to do about the deficiencies in Karzai government. While American policy-makers recognize that the regional strongmen and whatnots are part of the legitimacy problem of the regime in Kabul, there is a lot of debate, particularly in the US army, concerning “tribal engagement” (as they call it). In other words, they are trying to figure out if there are any local and legitimate authority structures that they can co-opt and build upon so that someday the international forces can leave and the Afghans take care of their own security. US efforts really might empower these sub-state actors like Pacha Khan Zadran to conduct their own international relations of a sort and reassert their authority. Is this the kind of activity that one wants to promote if the ultimate aim is to help build a capable and conventional state? Or is the US project doing something else through empowering these actors in this way?