Counter-Terrorism: Al Qaeda's Loss Is Haqqani's Gain


May 20, 2011: The U.S. believes that al Qaeda is fading fast in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially since the death of leader Osama bin Laden earlier this month. An ally of al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Haqqani Network, is now seen as a larger threat, especially in Afghanistan. Based in North Waziristan (and adjacent areas). Haqqani has been at it for over two decades, and has long worked with Pakistani intelligence (ISI). Haqqani has been discreet, where the Taliban have not, and this has earned the group a measure of respect from Pakistani politicians and military commanders. Haqqani does not carry out terror attacks in Pakistan. The network is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan from the eastern part of the country. He is now in his 60s, and runs a tight ship. He was a major warlord during the 1980s war with the Soviets, and a major player in the civil war that broke out after the Soviets left in 1989. But he quickly saw the power of the Taliban (being an Islamic conservative himself), and joined the Taliban shortly after he encountered them. But Haqqani kept his organization separate, and his head down. He carries out terror attacks mainly in eastern Afghanistan.

Haqqani has over 5,000 men under arms (but many are part-time fighters) and several hundred suicide bombers in training or ready to go. Haqqani can call on over 20,000 armed tribesmen in North Waziristan and adjacent areas. Again, these are largely part-timers, and have to be convinced to gather and fight. A threatened Pakistani Army invasion of North Waziristan would be convincing, and that has kept the Pakistani soldiers out so far. The only government forces in the area are the Frontier Constabulary, a border guard recruited from the local tribes. These guys guard the Afghan border in North Waziristan, but have an understanding with Haqqani men sneaking into or out of Afghanistan; they leave them alone. The Haqqani gunmen return the favor.

Despite protests from the Pakistanis, the U.S. has increased its use of missile armed UAVs to hunt down and kill terrorist leaders. These missile (mainly Hellfire) attacks have already killed or wounded several members of the Haqqani clan, and that will apparently increase. The Pakistanis want only al Qaeda and Taliban leaders attacked, because these two groups have been launching a growing number of terror attacks in Pakistan. But Haqqani has behaved itself, and Pakistan (at least the army and ISI) wants to keep it that way. But Haqqani also allows al Qaeda to use Haqqani facilities (camps, safe houses and so on). This doesn't bother the Pakistanis much, but the U.S. and Afghanistan are not happy with all the terrorism Haqqani sponsors and carries out Afghanistan. So Haqqani leaders are going to be seeing more Hellfire missiles up close and personal.

The terrorist losses from these attacks have been severe, and include heads of operations, finance and intelligence. Many of the mid-level commanders were bomb making, and terror attack experts. These losses caused additional casualties as less skilled bomb makers died when their imperfect devices blew up while under construction. New bomb makers have been less successful because of poor instruction. The loss of operations commanders meant operatives were less effectively deployed, and more easily caught or killed. The damage to their intelligence operations meant there was less success in general, especially against the growing American informant network on the ground. The financial leadership losses has meant less income, and more reliance on stealing from locals, which makes the terror groups even more unpopular.

Most of the attacks have taken place in the last three years, and concentrated on al Qaeda, with Haqqani and Taliban personnel as secondary targets. In 2010, there have been about two attacks a week. In some cases there have been as many as four in 24 hours. In all of 2009 there were 53 attacks, and only 35 in 2008. While there are more attacks, fewer civilians have been killed. It's difficult to tell who is an innocent civilian in these circumstances, but since the terrorists have rarely claimed, and identified civilian deaths from these attacks, there are apparently very few civilians killed. There are several reasons for this. One is better intel, as well as new types of missiles. UAVs can carry more of the new, smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one Hellfire. While this allows more targets to be hit per sortie, the crucial factor is intelligence. In the past, the most effort was made, and the highest prices paid, for information on al Qaeda leaders. Now Haqqani people are at the top of the list.

In the last three years, the UAV campaign in Pakistan has killed about a thousand people. Some 30 percent of the dead were civilians, largely because the terrorists use human shields, and try to surround themselves with women and children. Many of these civilians were wives and children of the Islamic radicals. As the CIA intelligence got better, and the locals more insistent on not being human shields, more and more of the civilians were close kin of the terrorists, and at least aware of the danger they were in because of their husband's line of work.

Until recently, the terrorist groups refrained from discussing these attacks publically, even to score some media points by complaining of civilian casualties. The last bit has to do with most of the civilians being wives and children accompanying their terrorist daddy. Civilian deaths are minimized by trying to catch the terrorists while travelling, or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later, find few locals claiming lots of civilian casualties. Unlike Afghanistan, the Pakistani Pushtuns tend to avoid criticizing their government, for fear of retribution from tribal leaders or the government itself.


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