The failing campaign

Print edition : February 02, 2002

A vapour trail from an American B-52 bomber circling Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.-GEOFF SPENCER/ AP

A relentless American campaign seeking to kill Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani rains bombs on civilians as the most powerful mujahideen remains elusive.

 

CHASING and bombing shadows? For two months now, the Pentagon has been carrying out a relentless bombing campaign seeking to kill Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani. The effort has failed, just as its drive to apprehend Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden has. But who is Jalaluddin Haqqani and why does he deserve such Pentagon attention? And with what effects?

 

A report filed by Reuters on October 9, pondering the future of the Taliban, pointed to the prominence of Jalaluddin Haqqani: "One of the main weathervanes will be Jalaluddin Haqqani, the most prominent mujahideen commander from the Soviet war who sided with the Taliban when they made him Minister for Tribal Affairs.

"Haqqani has returned to his stronghold in Khost, the eastern border area where Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden reportedly had several training camps, and Afghan analysts are watching to see if he will turn coat and support Zahir Shah."1

A veteran mujahideen and northern Pushtun leader, Haqqani rose to prominence as a military leader of the radical Islamic group and militia of Pushtun resistance to the Soviet-leaning Communist government in Kabul, Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, during the 1980s. At the time, he was a strong ally of the United States. (Hekmatyar in turn retains strong ties with Iran). Haqqani's power base was in Jalalabad and particularly in Khost in Paktia province. He played a pivotal role between the southern Pushtuns from Kandahar, who formed the core of the Taliban, and what that group sees as the northern usurpers from Kabul. Haqqani was renowned as the architect of one of the most stunning military reverses suffered by the Najibullah government - the fall of Khost in 1991. He was named Justice Minister in the first mujahideen government formed in Kabul in 1992, but defected to the Taliban just before they seized the capital in September 1996. In 1995, Haqqani defected and allied himself with the emerging Taliban and helped the Taliban secure control of the Nangarhar province in 1996. The defection was a key factor in securing territorial advantage for the Taliban.2 At the time, bin Laden was living there as a guest (and friend) of Haqqani. Haqqani possessed a valuable trove of apparently at least 70 U.S Stinger missiles.3

Haqqani led the Taliban's brutal military campaign north of Kabul during the winter of 1996-97, sweeping through the towns of Estalif and Qarabagh, carrying out what his opponents described as ethnic cleansing of the Tajik minority there. In 1998, he switched posts, being appointed to the important position of Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs in the Taliban government. Haqqani is known to have had close ties with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), ties that go back to the 1980s. His relationship with bin Laden led to the building of many training camps in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Paktia (especially south of Khost). The Zhawar Kili Al Badr camps in the Khost area were targeted and hit with some 70 cruise missiles when Washington launched its first strike against bin Laden in 1998 after the bombings of U.S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In late September 2001, Omar appointed Haqqani the commander-in-chief of the Taliban armed forces. He also served as Governor of Paktia.

DURING the first month and a half of the U.S. war on Afghanistan, the belief in Washington was that the heavy U.S. bombing would lead to splits within the Taliban leadership. Some thought that a moderate Taliban faction might regroup in Pakistan and disassociate itself from Kabul. Haqqani was seen as one possible leader of such a splinter fraction. During the first four weeks of the air campaign, U.S. planes studiously avoided hitting Afghanistan's largest and most fortified training camps burrowed into the mountains east of Khost.4 This area reportedly hosted five of Haqqani's bases, partly built by Osama bin Laden when he was a U.S. ally.

Much ado was made in the Western press about Haqqani's visit to Pakistan between October 17 and 21. Such speculation dissipated when Haqqani commented to local reporters during the trip: "We will retreat to the mountains and begin a long guerilla war to reclaim our pure land from infidels and free our country like we did against the Soviets.... We are eagerly awaiting the American troops to land on our soil, where we will deal with them in our own way.... The Americans are creatures of comfort. They will not be able to sustain the harsh conditions that await them."5

Three weeks later the U.S. began its bombing campaign, targeted specifically to kill Haqqani. In the confusion reigning in Kabul on November 11 and 12, as the Taliban lines in the north collapsed, Kathy Gannon reported for the Associated Press, that a lieutenant of Haqqani was the contact person between the Taliban and "the Arabs" of Al Qaeda.6

The first U.S. strike on Haqqani occurred in Kabul on the night of November 12, when his two-storey house in the upscale district of Wazir Akbar Khan was presumably targeted. Neighbours said Taliban, Arab, Pakistani and Sudanese fighters had visited the house regularly and that it was linked by a communications wire to a heavy artillery position on the Bibi Mahru hill.7 The area around Haqqani's house was hit three times. At 7 p.m., a 500 pound Mark 82 JDAM bomb - the U.S.' weapon of choice during the first phase of its air raid - hit a small group of buildings opposite his home, destroying a guard hut where ammunition was stored and flattening a civilian house. Just 30 minutes later, neighbours saw several people loading ammunition into a Toyota van in the street. Seconds later, a U.S helicopter circling overhead fired a rocket directly into the van, vaporising it.

Ghulam Ali's sister-in-law, Ayesha, 30, was drawing water from a barrel in her frontyard when it struck. Ayesha was killed instantly by shrapnel.

Scoreboard: a 30-year-old woman killed, a civilian house flattened, and Haqqani somewhere in Afghanistan.

Then, on November 13, U.S. planes attacked a house in Gardez, the capital of Paktia, in which they believed Haqqani was staying. Haqqani survived the attack, but his brother-in-law and a family servant were killed.

Scoreboard: a civilian domestic aide and a relative of Haqqani killed, a house destroyed, and Haqqani somewhere in Afghanistan.

On November 18, Behroz Khan of Pakistan's The News provided details of another attack:8

"Another 18 persons, including six bodyguards of Taliban Minister for Frontiers, Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and the entire family of his host, Maulvi Sirajuddin, were killed in Tosha village of the Zadran area in Paktia province. 'We have reports the family members of the host were martyred in the bombing. But my father is safe and is inside Afghanistan,' said the son of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani. Locals from Tosha village said that the bomb was dropped on the house at midnight, which killed Maulvi Sirajuddin and his 11-member family. Six of Haqqani's bodyguards were also killed...."

Earlier on November 16-17 , U.S. planes had bombed a mosque and the religious school (the madrassa of Haqqani) attached to it on the outskirts of Khost, which resulted in the death of 15 students at madrassa as well as 10 persons at the mosque.9 The planes attacked when the mosque was full during the late evening Isha's and Taraweh prayers.

Scoreboard: 11 family members, 15 teenage religious students and ten civilians in mosque killed, a mosque, madrassa and house destroyed, and Haqqani somewhere in Afghanistan.

By December, Haqqani had apparently vanished. A month later, the Paktia Governor Badshah Khan, a Pushtun royalist, fearing rebellion by local tribal chiefs in the areas along the Pakistan border, expressed reservations about the renewed U.S. bombing campaign on training camps south of Khost.10

Khan was quoted as saying: "If the Americans are really interested in removing Al Qaeda, instead of destroying our tribal structure and creating differences between our people, they have to help the powerful ones - like me - not just the Northern Alliance from Kabul, which is trying to undermine our rule... I didn't believe before all this that the Americans could be so foolish - bombing villages instead of military targets. They are repeating some of the mistakes of Tora Bora all over again."11

After over two months of seeking and failing to vaporise Haqqani, what is the scorecard?

Thirty-eight civilians killed; three residences destroyed; a mosque and religious school bombed.

1 Tom Heneghan, "Analysis - Race on for Hearts and Minds of Afghan Tribes", Reuters (October 9, 2001).

2 Some details on Haqqani from Sukumar Muralidharan, "America's War. Into a Crucial Phase", Frontline (November 9, 2001).

3 "Haqqani Appointed Taliban Commander", Dawn (September 29, 2001).

4 Christopher Kremmer in New Delhi, "Warlord Plots Future Minus Taliban Friends", The Age (October 22, 2001).

5 Scott MacDonald, "Minister's Visit Hints at Taliban Split", Reuters, Islamabad (9-38 a.m. eastern time, October 20, 2001). Also "Taliban Official in Talks Over New Leadership", OC Register (October 21, 2001).

6 Kathy Gannon, "Taliban's Defiance Masks Move to Flee", Associated Press (November 30, 2001).

7 Rory McCarthy, "U.S. Planes Rain Death on the Innocent. 'Precision' Raids kill Residents in Capital City", The Guardian (December 1, 2001).

8 Behroz Khan, "Taliban Spilt Over Pullout from Kunduz", The News International (November 19, 2001).

9 Rahimullah Yusufzai, "U.S. Warplanes Now Targeting Civilians", The News International (December 12, 2001).

10 see Ellen Knickmeyer, "Civilians Flee U.S. Bombing Raids on terrorist Hideout", The Guardian (January 14, 2002), and Suzanne Goldenberg, in Zhawar, "Day 100: Another Raid in the Bombing War Without End", The Guardian (January 15, 2002).

11 Philip Smucker, "U.S. Beefs Up Troops, but Skips Locals", Christian Science Monitor (January 16, 2002).

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