At long last some good news emerged from Afghanistan on Oct. 12. A family kidnapped in 2012 by the Taliban was rescued and reunited with their loved ones. Caitlan Coleman and her husband Joshua Boyle, having ventured into Afghanistan on an ill-advised hiking vacation in 2012 were kidnapped by some segment of Taliban forces and eventually found themselves held by the Taliban Haqqani network, where they endured captivity until Oct. 11. The details on the rescue are sketchy, but the Haqqani network and it’s on-again, off-again relationship with the leadership of the Taliban are pretty well known.
The Haqqani network can be viewed and probably better understood when compared to a mafia-style family. The Haqqanis are in fact an actual family. The family patriarch, Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani, born into a wealthy family in 1939, was once considered a hero by some in the Clinton administration.
Jalaluddin first came to the attention of the United States as a mujahedeen leader battling the Russians. He was in fact considered by most to be one of the most consistent opposition leaders at the time. He waivered very little in his efforts to oust the Russians, unlike some other leaders who seemed less trustworthy. (Even Ahmad Shah Masood, the “Lion of Panjshir,” much to the chagrin of the United States, tried to negotiate cease-fire scenarios from time to time during the war). As a result, Jalaluddin received a lion’s share of funding from the United States and Saudi Arabia, all of which was laundered through the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI). At the time he was like many other warlords in that arena, also profiting from the sale and smuggling of heroin, a fact well known and winked at during the period.
Following the defeat of the Russians, the Haqqanis turned to power struggles with the other warlords, and of course, strengthening their hold on the nation’s heroin production and smuggling operations. Being Pashtun, of the Khost area Zadran tribe, they naturally allied themselves with the Taliban, but most analysts agree that they never adopted the religious zeal and tenacity for which Taliban leaders such as Mullah Mohammad Omar were known. Their hearts always seemed to lie with family, smuggling and obtaining wealth—often being compared to the fictional Sopranos family on TV. To this end, their Taliban relationship was trotted out when it suited their objectives. More often than not, in the past decade it has suited their objectives.
To the release/rescue of the family, it is unclear whether this operation was a negotiated release or a special operations-type rescue. One thing is clear, however; the Pakistani’s made it happen. The question is why? And why now?
The ISI has controlled the Pakistani government for decades. Stuck in between a Russian power—when the Russians were in control of Afghanistan—and Pakistan’s mortal enemy, India, there was little choice but to let ISI and the military generals make national security decisions, which basically translated to all decisions. That practice was pretty standard even before the Russian invasion, and it remains in place today primarily because few elected leaders have had the power base or the inclination to challenge it.
For numerous reasons, ISI commanders and army generals have had a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network. The network is strongest, and operates primarily along the Pakistan border in and around Khost Province. This relationship was principally for security purposes initially, but over the years, it is widely accepted that the military leadership has profited greatly from the Haqqanis smuggling operations. That mindset is still there, but for some reason operations have changed. If interpreted correctly, this change could have major significance for the West.
A security concern in the area has been, and remains the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) influence over the jihadist networks. Recently, significant evidence indicates closer ties between traditional Taliban forces and ISIS—a possibility many felt was so remote it was not worth considering. As a matter of fact, responsibility for a major suicide attack in Kabul in September was claimed jointly by Taliban and ISIS leadership. The two organizations seemed to announce this joint operation as a signal of things to come.
To date, the Haqqani network has resisted associating with ISIS, but if support from their longtime ally Pakistan is withdrawn, they will naturally move closer to the center of gravity in terms of strength. If the Haqqanis join forces with a strengthened Taliban/ISIS organization, the effects will be felt for some time.
As to why Pakistan moved to free the hostage family after all these years (only the ill-informed would accept the premise that the Pakistanis didn’t know the victims’ whereabouts until early October), one can only assume a harder stance from the Trump administration and a new foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan, is credited.
Three things are likely to happen in the near future: President Trump is going to demand continued cooperation from Pakistan; the Pakistanis are going to choose continued pressure on the Haqqanis over the potential loss of aid; and the unholy trinity of the traditional Taliban, the Haqqani network, and ISIS, will likely be more active.
Dr. Godfrey Garner is a permanent faculty professor at Mississippi College, as well as adjunct in Homeland Security at Tulane University and Belhaven University. Following two tours in Vietnam and a lengthy break in military service, he rejoined and eventually retired from 20th Special Forces group in 2006. He completed two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of the novels Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, Clothed in White Raiment, and The Balance of Exodus, as well as an upcoming textbook on the fundamentals of intelligence analysis.
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