ISLAMABAD: While the United States, ever more strident, is ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan to snap its “ties with the Haqqani network”, the group’s chief Sirajuddin Haqqani on Friday warned Washington against any military adventure in the North Waziristan tribal agency.
Speaking to Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location, Sirajuddin said he’d look forward to a US ground attack in North Waziristan. “The United States will suffer more losses [in North Waziristan] than they did in Afghanistan,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t take chances, especially with overhead drones a constant worry – 57 drone strikes have peppered the region so far this year, according to the New American Foundation, a think tank that keeps a database of such attacks.
Some 55 members of his family, including his brother, have been killed in such attacks.
According to the New American database, at least a quarter of the drone attacks since 2008 have targeted the Haqqanis.
“I always avoid travelling in a motorcade of armed fighters, as it puts your life in danger,” he said, adding that is also why he doesn’t wear a turban or carry a gun.
Yet he is far from being a desperate fugitive on the run. He acknowledges that Haqqani fighters now number around 15,000, making it probably the largest force among the Taliban warlords. He also moves easily across the border to areas of eastern Afghanistan where the Haqqanis are entrenched.
(Read: Who on earth are the Haqqanis?)
He even mediates disputes among the Taliban and takes part in their meetings in Afghanistan.
“His word is enough,” said Mahmood Shah, a former Pakistan intelligence official who monitored militants for years.
The forbidding terrain of Waziristan, which forms an ill-defined border with Afghanistan, is also his ally.
“There are certain houses and villages where the bathroom is in Afghanistan and the bedroom is in Pakistan and this creates some issues,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters. “That no-man’s land, that is not (in the) control of Pakistani forces or Afghan authorities or the US forces.”
The Haqqani’s power and influence in Afghanistan is such that they are indispensable to any settlement of the decade-long Afghan conflict, America’s longest war, experts say.
“If there is to be a meaningful cessation of hostilities, the Haqqanis will have to be part of the peace process,” said Vahid Brown, an expert on Islamic militancy and author of a new book, “Fountainhead of Jihad: the Haqqani Nexus”.
(Read: Time for some hard decisions)
Sirajuddin is one of the world’s most wanted men with a $5 million bounty on his head. He said he discovered that while listening to the Voice of America.
“I don’t know why, but I could not sleep that night,” he said in Thursday’s interview. “In the morning, I tuned into a Pashto-language broadcast of the Voice of America and came to know about this. “I have chosen the path of jihad and I know very well about the hardships and fruits of this path.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2011.