The Haqqani network, one of the most feared Taliban groups in Afghanistan, no longer has sanctuaries in Pakistan, and instead feels secure inside Afghanistan, its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani said on Saturday.
“Gone are the days when we were hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Now we consider ourselves more secure in Afghanistan besides the Afghan people. Senior military and police officials are with us,” Sirajuddin, believed to be in his late 30s, told Reuters in a rare telephone interview from an undisclosed location.
“There are sincere people in the Afghan government who are loyal to the Taliban as they know our goal is the liberation of our homeland from the clutches of occupying forces,” he said.
The United States has repeatedly pressed Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network it believes is based in the North Waziristan tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned Pakistan on Wednesday the United States would “do everything we can” to defend US forces from Pakistan-based militants staging attacks in Afghanistan. The US believes militants from the Haqqani network were behind Tuesday’s rocket attack on the US embassy compound in Kabul.
Asked if the Haqqani network was behind the assault, Sirajuddin said: “For some reasons, I would not like to claim that fighters of our group had carried out the recent attack on US embassy and Nato headquarters. Our central leadership, particularly senior members of the shura, suggested I should keep quiet in future if the US and its allies suffer in future.”
About the Afghan reconciliation plan, Sirajuddin said his group would take part in peace talks with the Kabul government and the United States only if the Taliban did.
The Haqqanis technically fall under the command of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though US officials believe they can act independently.
The Haqqanis rejected several peace gestures from the United States and President Hamid Karzai’s government in the past because they were an attempt to “create divisions” between militant groups, he said. Any further efforts to do so would fail, added Sirajuddin.
“They offered us very very important positions but we rejected and told them they would not succeed in their nefarious designs. They wanted to divide us,” said Sirajuddin. “We would support whatever solution our shura members suggest for the future of Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the Afghan Taliban leadership.
Security analyst Ejaz Haider described Sirajuddin’s comments as a shift. “Sirajuddin’s statement now is significant as a signal to the United States. That ‘we are prepared to talk if you want to talk seriously and as part of the larger dialogue with the Taliban’,” he said.
In what Sirajuddin, who carries a US bounty of $5million, described as a further sign of strength, the Haqqanis are also consolidating their hold on eastern Afghanistan, forcing rival insurgent groups out of territory they have claimed.
He said fighters from Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami group, had tried to take on US troops in the Haqqani territory.
“I spoke to the shura … whether I should allow them to operate in my area of control. They did not allow me and then I ordered Hekmatyar’s fighters to either join the Taliban or leave Khost and they left the area,” he said.
Asked whether there are 10,000 Haqqani fighters as some media reports have suggested, Sirajuddin laughed and said: “That figure is actually less than the actual number.”
The Haqqani network is perhaps the most divisive issue between Pakistan and the United States.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2011.