Despite their origins as part of an obscure border tribe from the hills of Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktia provinces, the Haqqani clan now find themselves center-stage in the Afghan conflict. On 1 October, only days after former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, in congressional testimony, pointed to the Haqqanis and their supporters (possibly including Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)) as key threats to stability in Afghanistan, NATO announced the arrest of Mali Khan, a “senior leader” of the Haqqani Network. Sometimes these revelations of insurgents killed or captured exaggerate the importance of the “trophy.” Not so this time. Mali Khan really has been one of the lynchpins of the Haqqani Network, and his capture will pose a whole series of challenges for those who lead and cooperate with them.Mali Khan was a trusted confidant of the patriarch of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin, and his son Siraj. Khan was an effective commander directly involved in supervising operations and the myriad logistics and organizational activities required to keep a clandestine insurgency underway. His effectiveness as a leader was in part due to the fact that he spent much of his time on the ground in southeastern Afghanistan. Although he had made his main residence in Waziristan’s main town of Miranshah, Mali Khan did not spend much of his time at home. This point is important because the NATO kill-and-capture campaign has made it difficult for known senior commanders to travel inside Afghanistan. Until now, Mali Khan had managed to stay a step ahead of the targeters. However, they got close – in June ISAF announced that they had killed the deputy to Mali Khan in an airstrike.
The Haqqani Network is in its essence a clan within the Zadran tribe, in addition to the clan’s manifold alliances built up in different stages of the Afghan conflict. Mali Khan achieved his senior status in part because he was a member of the clan, rather than just an ally. His family is doubly related to Jalaluddin and Siraj; Mali Khan’s sister is Siraj’s mother, and Mali Khan’s uncle is married to Jalaluddin’s sister. As a family insider, Mali Khan has helped play a role in the network’s dynastic succession — the passage of the leadership from Jalaluddin to Siraj. Recent analyses havestressed Jalaluddin’s “Islamist internationalist credentials.” But the patriarch was foremost a leading commander of the anti-Soviet mujahideen and one of the pillars of the “commanders shura” in the final stages of the jihad, which famously tried to unite the field commanders across party and ethnic divides. His 1980’s role has given Jalaluddin genuine prestige — he is a peer of the old men Hamid Karzai invites to his informal “leaders shura” in Kabul. Siraj, however, has never had either the public exposure or the battlefield experience of his father. Having a senior loyalist family commander like Mali Khan in the field helps offers continuity in the network, as he can encourage cooperators to transfer the respect they have for Jalaluddin to his lesser-known son.
It was this privileged insider status which allowed Mali Khan to be involved intimately in a wide range of Network activities. More light needs to be shed on the span of the command chain employed in the Haqqanis’ trademark spectacular attacks — the group clearly draws on the expertise of their range of allies in Waziristan, including al-Qaeda. However Mali Khan has played his own role in these attacks. Afghans who know the network well suggest he probably supplied some of the “fidayeen” recruits and supervised some of them in the attacks, such as the storming of the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel. And in addition to his military functions, Mali Khan had also served as one of the Haqqani business managers. Even during the jihad of the 1980’s, fronts built up portfolios of assets, as military effectiveness depended upon having an economic base. And while the Haqqani Network is notorious for profiting from kidnapping, they have also been quick to take advantage of some of the business opportunities in post-2001 Afghanistan. Afghan researchers in the southeastern provinces believe that Mali Khan was responsible for managing many of those assets.
Given just how central Mali Khan was to Haqqani operations, the fact that he was taken alive makes his loss all the more troubling for the group. He is an example of how “capture” can be more effective then “kill.” The Haqqanis have to work on the assumption that the Afghan Government and NATO are acquiring a rather better understanding of network operations than just about anyone else might have been able to supply them. Commander networks which have been targeted in a “kill and capture” operation always move to appoint a successor to the man they have lost, and the Haqqanis will do the same for Mali Khan. However, they have barely a handful of family insiders capable of taking over the kind of commander-cum-leader-cum-manager role which Mali Khan played. And although it is far too early to write off the Haqqanis, the experience should push analysts to think ahead to the question of who the non-Afghan Waziristan militants will work through if there ever really is a weakening of the Haqqani role. After all, the Haqqanis are by no means the only strategic threat originating in Waziristan.
Michael Semple is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.