Warlord: My encounter with Taliban mastermind

Backed by the CIA, he fought the Soviets then was sidelined. Now he's back, wreaking havoc among British forces. Raymond Whitaker on meeting Jalaluddin Haqqani
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The Independent Online

In a month when Britain has lost nine soldiers in Afghanistan, including the first woman, and hundreds of Taliban fighters were freed by a daring bomb attack on Kandahar's main jail, the British public is only just becoming aware of the malevolent power of Jalaluddin Haqqani.

A man once known only to old Afghan hands is being credited with the resurgence of the Taliban since 2006. He is said to have introduced Iraqi-style suicide bombings to a country where they were unknown and are still considered by many to be un-Islamic. Wily and well connected, he is emerging as the biggest threat to Britain and its Nato allies in Afghanistan, where last month more Western troops were killed than in Iraq for the first time since 2003. He has experienced a comeback as spectacular as that of the movement he is now serving as principal military commander.

When I encountered Haqqani in March 1994, the fortunes of the legendary Afghan warlord were at a low ebb. He was a hero to the CIA and wealthy Arab backers during the fight against the Soviet invaders. As chronicled in the movie Charlie Wilson's War, torrents of money and arms had been channelled through Pakistan's intelligence service to resistance leaders like him. But, after the Russians pulled out in 1989 and the Communist regime collapsed in 1992, Haqqani and his fellow Pashtun chieftains had been outmanoeuvred.

Kabul had been seized by the Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who installed his party leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, as President. Now Haqqani was sitting outside the President's office, waiting for an audience in which he would seek favours, and the photograph I took of him shows all the discomfort of a man who would have preferred to be meeting Rabbani on the battlefield.

Already in his late 40s, the mujahedin commander might have been expected to fade into obscurity, especially when Pakistan despaired of his ilk and decided to foster the Taliban instead. Yet 14 years later, he is regarded as the Taliban's most effective military leader. The former darling of the West's intelligence agencies is now their leading target after Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the Taliban figurehead, Mullah Omar.

Haqqani has shown his talent for psychologically significant blows, such as the attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai during a military parade in the heart of Kabul in April, and January's attack on a luxury hotel that killed seven and sent shivers through the expatriate community in the Afghan capital.

This has accompanied the steady stream of suicide bombings that undermine Nato's military superiority and keep the civilian population on edge. On Friday, a suicide bomber on foot attacked a foreign military convoy in Helmand province, killing one Nato soldier and five civilians.

How did a man now in his 60s, who appeared to have been pushed to the margins, return to such a central role? Bin Laden himself, of course, was once seen as an asset by the US, and when the wealthy Saudi decided in the 1980s to take up the Afghan cause, one of the first Afghans he met was Haqqani. From a Pashtun clan with clout both in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal territories, Haqqani was able to provide Bin Laden with territory for his first camps. It was an association that later stood him in good stead.

As one of the few Pashtun commanders able to demonstrate effectiveness in fighting the Communists – he seized Khost, the first town to fall to the mujahedin after the Soviet pullout – the rough-hewn Haqqani was admired by Arabs who dreamed of jihad but lacked the nerve to go to war themselves. He visited the Gulf states frequently, learned Arabic and was always able to raise money in the Middle East after the American tap was turned off, enabling him to maintain large numbers of men under arms.

Even when Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) switched horses and backed the Taliban, he remained on good terms with the agency and was able to make a comfortable retreat to his stronghold, Miram Shah, in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan.

Haqqani was the first mujahedin commander to surrender unconditionally to the Taliban, and remained on polite terms with the movement. Although he was never part of the tight inner circle, he took various minor posts during Mullah Omar's five years in power, between 1996 and 2001, eventually becoming interior minister.

He also helped his old associate Bin Laden to set up training camps on his return to Afghanistan. None of this necessarily meant that he was fully committed to the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, in the view of his old contacts in the CIA and ISI – but after 9/11 it was time to put that theory to the test.

According to at least one report, Haqqani was summoned to Islamabad and told he could be installed as president of Afghanistan if he formed a breakaway "moderate" faction of the Taliban, excluding Mullah Omar. Presumably, the al-Qa'ida leadership would have been expelled from Afghanistan under the deal. But the warlord declined and returned to his stronghold. According to Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, a history of American involvement in Afghanistan, it was into Haqqani's territory that Bin Laden fled after he managed to elude the Americans in 2001.

Even then, Haqqani did not immediately assume a prominent role in the Taliban, although his forces were always ready to attack the Americans in eastern Afghanistan. It was only after the movement's 2006 spring offensive ran into trouble that he was asked to take command. The subsequent Taliban resurgence took Nato by surprise and spread dissension among its members over tactics and reinforcements.

Nato insists that it cannot be defeated in battle by the Taliban. That is certainly true – large numbers of Taliban militants freed in the attack on Kandahar jail were later killed when they tried to mass together to seize the city – but it is irrelevant. With a judicious mixture of hit-and-run attacks, suicide bombings and occasional "spectaculars", plus the constant vehicle bombings that claimed four British lives last week, Haqqani can destabilise nearly half the country and hold back economic reconstruction.

Recently, he appeared in a DVD to dispel rumours that he was dead, or that he had handed over to his 34-year-old son, Sirajuddin, who has assumed responsibility for military operations. He is a particularly formidable opponent for the West, with his long-standing connections to Pakistani intelligence apparently protecting him from any intervention in Waziristan, while his Middle Eastern links bring him money and recruits.

"This is not a battle of haste; this is a battle of patience," he says in the DVD. He speaks from experience. The commander I saw in the President's waiting-room 14 years ago appeared to be washed up, but he has outlasted his opponents. The Taliban, formed to get rid of old warlords like him, is now grateful for his help.