DISPATCHES FROM AFGHANISTAN: Inside the Haqqani Network, How the U.S-backed government opened the floodgates to the Taliban and Afghan Weddings in New Era
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience which is bitterest.” Confucius
It is always a strange challenge to re-adjust to the “real world” after months away. In many ways, working out in the field is a simpler existence than the lives we lead in our western cocoons rife will bills and responsibilities and pressures and life expectations of a different kind. I think for me, working in far-flung places for significant stretches of time is so addictive because you develop quick and close bonds with those working around you. They become a close-knit support system and family which is contrasted with my much more fragmented and lonely life in the United States.
Nonetheless, I am continuing to publish pieces from my work abroad (hence this newsletter) and am focused on returning to Kabul in the Spring, as well as planning new adventures once I establish a new home base and get through a chunk of long-term writing projects.
Moreover, anyone looking to support an amazing organization this holiday season please consider one very close to my heart @helpbcrf. Burnt Children Relief brings Syrian children burned in the long-running war to the US for life-saving surgery and a second lease on life, thanks in large part to the tireless @susanbaaj and with support from @shrinershospitals
Over the years, these incredible survivors have changed my life in so many ways. There is no pity. Only an acceptance of what has happened to them and then moving on. Their bravery is beyond remarkable.
INSIDE THE HAQQANI NETWORK FROM INSURGENCY TO OFFICIAL GOVERNING FORCE
Despite being one of the most potent figures now in charge of running an embattled nation of 38 million, the Taliban-appointed Minister of the Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani – leader of the notorious Haqqani Network – remains as elusive and shadowy as ever.
In October, he made his first public appearance at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel – lauding suicide bombers and promising payments to their families. However, all photographs published by news outlets in attendance and by guests on social media were either blurred or taken from behind. Moreover, the U.S. designated terrorist, who is believed to be around 48 years old, is yet to conduct a formal media interview and endeavors to ensure that his face is never exposed to the world.
The FBI continues to disseminate a years-old, barely-discernible photograph of Sirajuddin – commonly referred to as Siraj or Khalifa (boss) – along with an active $10 million reward for his arrest, placed in 2007. Next to nothing is known about the Haqqani chiefdom, who is rumored to have an Arab wife living in a Gulf country.
“Mr. Haqqani may do some media interviews in the future when the situation settles, but there will not be photos nor video,” one high-ranking MOI intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says. “Mr. Haqqani walks openly among the people. Every few days, he goes for checks around the city to see what is happening, and nobody knows who he is. He will keep it that way.”
Sirajuddin is also said to regularly change location and keep his schedule and movements secret, despite running internal security for Afghanistan. The source described Sirajuddin’s personality as “interesting” and always filled with wisdom and lessons to learn.
“Mr. Haqqani manages everything; everyone obeys his orders,” the intelligence insider continues. “But he stresses that we are not here to serve Mr. Haqqani. The ideology is that we are here to serve our country.”
The network he has commanded since its founder and his father Jalaluddin died in 2018 after a lengthy illness, has long been deemed the most robust and brutal wing of the Taliban and had been blamed on a string of high-profile assaults ranging from the 2011 assailment on the very same Kabul InterContinental Hotel, to suicide bombings on the Indian Embassy, and attacks against the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan Presidential Palace.
And Sirajuddin is not the only wanted Haqqani charged with rehabilitating Afghanistan after decades of bloodletting.
His uncle Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani now serves as the Minister for Refugees – ultimately responsible for luring Afghans back into their homeland. He was designated a global terrorist by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2011, along with a $5 million bounty.
Then there is the youngest of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s sons and Sirajuddin’s brother, Anas, around 29. He was part of the Doha-based negotiation team and something of a “face” for the network, known to show up randomly to Kabul’s Serena Hotel for impromptu press conferences with journalists. Anas – an apparent poet and writer – was arrested in Bahrain in 2014, at the behest of the U.S. After being issued a death sentence by an Afghan court in 2016, he spent three more years behind bars in Afghanistan before being released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Najibullah Haqqani, the Minister for Communication, was slapped with the U.S wanted tag in 2001. Sheikh Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the newly installed Minister for Higher Education, is the only Haqqani-aligned government member not listed on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list.
The infamous network, deemed a division of the Afghan Taliban but independent of its command apparatus, was founded by anti-Soviet warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani – once a beneficial CIA asset – who gained prominence in the 1980s and forged close ties to the late al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.
During its decades of insurgency, the Haqqani Network was based in Pakistan’s tribal region of North Waziristan, conducting cross-border missions to attack U.S. interests and troops. The branch hit America’s Foreign Terrorist list in 2012.
HOW THE U.S.-BACKED GOVERNMENT OPENED THE DOORS TO THE TALIBAN THROUGH SYSTEMIC CORRUPTION
Throughout the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, more than $2 trillion dollars – courtesy of the American taxpayer – was funneled into the war effort, with little to show beyond hundreds of thousands of lives lost and a nation now tumbling into economic and humanitarian despair.
While fingers can be pointed in many directions, it was in large part the systemic corruption that infected almost every aspect of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, which opened the door to the Taliban’s sweeping mid-August victory.
And the speculation begins at the top. President Ashraf Ghani – the victor of two highly-contested and allegedly fraudulent elections – quietly departed the Presidential Palace at some point in the very early afternoon of August 15 without a word, allowing the Taliban – officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – to walk right through.
“I was supposed to meet with the President the morning of August 15 at 10.30. He had asked to meet for an update on food security,” remembers Suleyman Bin Shah, Deputy Minister for Industry and Commerce. “But the President was sitting there just reading a book outside by himself. I kept waiting; I didn’t see any strong emotions from him. Before midday, there was a lot of gunfire outside, but I don’t believe this came from the Taliban. Then suddenly, everyone from inside was asked to leave, and were running out. I never saw him again.”
Only Ghani is accused of not only abandoning the country and those who had fought hard for it but of stealing bags of cash to the tune of $150 million in the process, according to multiple witnesses. The money was reportedly brought to him by the Afghan Bank – monies allocated for the currency exchange market – before his helicopter, stuffed with top advisors and security personnel, took flight to Uzbekistan and onto the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he resides on “humanitarian grounds.”
The former President has dismissed the claims, calling them “completely and categorically false.”
Nonetheless, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) has launched a formal probe into if and what was taken. The U.S. Justice Department may also investigate the matter and has the authority to bring forth criminal charges and extradition, depending on the findings.
However, the Ghani debacle is not the only information surfacing with regards to swaths of money being transferred to high-level individuals ahead of the collapse. Reports have since surfaced of senior personnel in multiple ministries exiting the embattled country with money that did not personally belong to them.
According to one Afghan consular officer in a neighboring country, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, millions were transferred to the Ambassador, and the high-level attaches just a few days before the Taliban takeover. Those funds were earmarked to pay the staff salaries – only almost all the staff were let go.
AFGHAN WEDDINGS DURING THE TIME OF THE TALIBAN: STRICT GENDER SEPARATION, NO LIVE MUSIC AND UNINVITED TALIBS TURNING UP “FOR FREE FOOD”
On the eve of one young Afghan’s engagement party, a lavish four-hour lunchtime affair at a local wedding hall, he received word that at least ten Taliban would attend to observe that the “rules” of no live music and strict separation of males and females were being observed.
“But mostly,” the groom-to-be, who asked only to be identified as Nazr, says in an almost whisper. “They come to eat the food.”
The Taliban, officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, have been in power for four months. But for twenty years as an insurgency, the foot soldiers have not received official salaries. According to one local media professional, Ahmed Naweed, who hosted a wedding for his cousin last month, Taliban fighters sat in a separate room to chow down on the wedding food.
“They came, they ate, and then left,” he recalls. “I asked the person in charge why they were here, and he said that they come regularly (for food).”
The biggest concern for the industry now is the fast-falling Afghan community.
Wedding Halls are separated of men and women so women can act more freely without prying eyes but equally. The dancing is nonstop.
“Generally, our customers were higher government officials and big company owners. Those people are not there anymore. But we have lost 80 percent of the clients,” notes Sabawoon, 45, the General Manager at Khaleej Wedding Hall for the last 13 years. “Earlier we used to have 150 full-time staff and 20 cleaners, but now only 40 people are left. For higher salaries, we have decreased the amount by 50 percent, and for lower level, we have decreased it by 25 percent.”
He points out that most wedding halls were undergoing expensive construction projects from December 2020 through to June 2021 and that “no one could have predicted such a situation.”
Sayed Yaqoot Ahmadi, 51, who has been the General Manager of the Sultan City wedding hall for the past decade, concurred that “business is decreasing day by day.”
“The business started dropping when Covid started in 2020 and then further when the Taliban regime came to power, people’s economy got very weak. For us, it has decreased by 60 percent,” he laments.
And Zabiullah, who has managed the Kabul Paris Wedding Hall for five years, adds that he has not been able to pay employees for the last two months.
“Neither us nor the clients can withdraw money from bank accounts to pay for things,” he bemoans. “The Taliban have said (through the Wedding Halls Union) they will observe, but no direction has been given yet.”
Indeed, while the new leadership is yet to hand down a formal mandate regarding changes to weddings and parties in adherence to their strict interpretation of Islam, the verbal directive is that the elaborate affairs – the center of most Afghan’s lives regardless of socioeconomic standing – can no longer include live musical instruments.
Music through a DJ is permitted only on the women’s side, but that means that partitions separating men and women are no longer tolerated. Instead, the sexes have to be in entirely different halls to “not disturb” the men on the other side.
The loss of live music since the Taliban takeover has cut through the heart of Afghan culture, with music schools fast shuttering and musicians either fleeing the country or going into hiding.
“Most of the musicians have left, so there is no music there,” says Mohammad, the Kabul Wedding Halls Union Director, who surmises business has fallen 70 percent. “If the banking system gets better, we hope things will get better.”
The Taliban of 2021 has endeavored to project a more moderate illustration than the hardline, brutal portrayal it functioned on during their last power reign from 1996 to 2001. Yet the prohibition on music remains as harsh as it was a quarter of a century ago.
For many, it marks a searing reversal on the last two decades. In the wake of the U.S. invasion post the attacks of September 11, the Afghan music scene flourished – and in turn, the jubilation of dancing and performing at weddings did too. Only that was all cut short on the sultry summer afternoon of August 15.
For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”
Photos courtesy of my brilliant photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos. Please consider a paid subscription to allow us to continue this work.