Taliban, the Next Generation: an Interview with Anas Haqqani

Anas Haqqani, the youngest son of a jihadist commander who fought the Russians and the Americans, tells Newlines that the Taliban has learned from its mistakes. But can the Taliban leave their brutal past behind?

Taliban, the Next Generation: an Interview with Anas Haqqani
Anas Haqqani (L) / Courtesy of the author

“Poetry is supposed to be accessible and touch every man, even the unlearned,” said Anas, 27, who considers himself a man of the pen. He is immersed in poetry. “Modern Pashto poetry has lost that; it is only understood by the learned,” he told me. He added: “There are, of course, the legendary poets, such as the militarist Khushal Baba, or the mutasawwif [Sufi] Rahman Baba.”

Bespectacled, bearded, broad-shouldered, and over 6 feet tall, he dresses in a kamees partoog (tunic and pants), with a black waistcoat on top. He wears a turban, a key marker among various Pashtun tribes, including the Zadran from which Anas hails. Traditionally, each region and tribe has a distinct style in which they fashion their turbans. Anas’ turban reveals his roots in Afghanistan’s mountainous southeast. He is from Paktia province, Gerda Serai district.

Every nation, Anas explained, has a distinct dress. “In recent years,” he said, “the West has been predominant. The world adopted not just Western culture and thought but even Western dress. Afghans are an exception. We cling to our culture and dress.” Pointing to his turban, he elaborated, “For the Zadran of Paktia, and Afghans in general, the turban is not just sunnah [Prophetic tradition]. It is a custom and inheritance from our elders.”

Anas quoted a couplet from Pashto poetry:

“The essence of my Pashto is so Islamic,
Were there no Islam, I would still be a Muslim.”

His soft-spoken demeanor and literary flourishes would lead one to assume Anas is just another Paktiawal, a son of the Paktia region. He is not. His full name is Anas Haqqani, son of the late Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani, the prominent anti-Soviet and anti-American jihadist commander. Anas’ brother is Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban. The Haqqani Network, as they became known, have been responsible for brutal attacks across 20 years and are still designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Some of the group are still wanted by the U.S., which accuses them of being tightly linked to al-Qaeda.

This month, the Taliban found themselves at the gates of Kabul after an 11-day blitzkrieg in which they captured dozens of provincial capitals. As word spread that president Ashraf Ghani had fled, the city descended into chaos. Caught off guard, the insurgents hastened to enter the capital and secure it. They became the new government by replacing the absent administration. The shift of the group into a governing position, almost by accident, put an abrupt end to their two decadeslong insurgency, after their previous government had been routed by U.S. and NATO forces 20 years earlier. For the Taliban, and for Anas, it has been a long, tumultuous and unpredictable journey.

Anas had been detained on Nov. 12, 2014, as he stopped in Bahrain, while returning from the newly opened Taliban political office in Doha. Rendered to Kabul and kept for nine months at the headquarters of the NDS, the notorious Afghan intelligence service, he was then transferred to Bagram air base. The U.S.-run installation had KFC and Burger King joints for the thousands of U.S. troops and personnel garrisoned there, but it was hell for the thousands of Afghans held there without charge or trial. Many died, others were victims of mock executions or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including rape and sexual assault, as documents obtained by the Guardian purported to show.

Afghan officials claimed that Anas was a senior member of the insurgency, involved not just in fundraising but also in the execution of the group’s strategy. Anas disputed this. “The Americans … wanted to put pressure on my family,” he said. Anas believes the stubborn loyalty his father had to the Taliban, despite persistent attempts by the U.S. to divide the insurgency by splitting off and reconciling the Haqqanis, led to his detention. He says he was taken hostage because the U.S. wanted to pressure the Taliban to negotiate with the government in Kabul. The Taliban, on the other hand, demanded that negotiations be held with the U.S., without the Afghan government’s initial involvement. As per the peace agreement signed in Doha in February 2020, the Taliban got their way.

Afghan courts twice passed the death penalty on Anas during his imprisonment. He insists this was based on charges for which he was never convicted, merely to blackmail his family and the emirate to which they had sworn allegiance. He was held in solitary for three of the four years of his imprisonment. The United Nations considers solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days to amount to “psychological torture.” He was also subjected to physical torture. U.S. forces, Anas claimed, were witness to and supervised the conduct of his captors. Upon his release he weighed a mere 132 pounds.

Anas solitary confinement ended in his final year of imprisonment, as the Trump administration engaged with the Taliban directly. He was released on Nov. 18, 2019, in a prisoner exchange that included Timothy Weeks, an Australian academic, who’d been taken hostage by the Taliban. Weeks had been teaching at the American University in Kabul and was coordinating language courses for Afghan police when he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Anas said he has since befriended Weeks, and even welcomed him at Hamad International Airport when the teacher came to witness the negotiations in Doha.

Anas is now back in Kabul. Despite his age, he was one of the Taliban’s chief negotiators in intra-Afghan negotiations with the now defunct government.

“Some family members were on a blacklist and unable to travel,” he said. “Others didn’t trust the Americans would honor their promises of immunity.” There were also concerns among U.S. officials of a domestic political backlash in the aftermath of a potential peace deal. This would be damaging given the perception that the Taliban were not united but consisted of factions, one of which was apparently the Haqqani Network.

“Our family needed to be present to disprove the allegations of there being a Haqqani Network, or that the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban’s self-designation] was factionalized, or that we operated independently of it.” It only made sense that the family seen as pioneers of the anti-Soviet jihad and later insurgency play an equally prominent role in brokering the U.S. endgame. Also in Kabul is Anas’ paternal uncle Khalil ur-Rahman, a senior commander who carries a $5 million bounty on his head. Khalil is currently attempting to broker a deal with the forces of Ahmad Massoud, which are resisting the Taliban takeover.

Anas personifies a new generation of Taliban, one not molded by the anti-communist jihad of the 1980s but the U.S. invasion and occupation of the past 20 years. The question Afghans want to know is, will this generation be any different.

“War snatched from us our sweetest, formative and most treasured years. We could not attend school and didn’t even have proper teachers. Life’s opportunities were wasted before us,” he said. Anas then recited another Pashto couplet:

“We too have the capacity to progress,
It is the world needlessly blocking our path.”

The village where Anas was born is a mere 9 miles from the Durand Line, the colonial era boundary separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. Across that line lay the Haqqani operational center in Khost. Anas studied in a local school in North Waziristan until seventh grade, combining an Islamist religious education at home. Jalaluddin, his father, was a graduate of Pakistan’s famed Deobandi Haqqaniyya seminary and a qualified scholar, a Mawlawi. He also served as minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. His father personally tutored him, his brothers, cousins and other clansmen in 2006. Jalaluddin took four months, Anas relayed, to teach one book on hadith, the speech and actions of the Prophet.

Jalaluddin first started an armed insurrection against the dictatorship of President Daud Khan in the mid-1970s. After the 1978 communist coup that killed Daud and his entire family, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to install a more pliant regime. Jalaluddin’s war gained international attention. At the time, he was admired by American advocates for intervention. U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson famously described him as “goodness personified.” Other mujahedeen leaders operated from the safety of Peshawar in Pakistan and were given to faction fights, but Jalaluddin was at the vanguard of battle in the mountains of Greater Paktia.

Jalaluddin continued fighting after the Soviet withdrawal until the communist government’s collapse in 1992. A new, intra-mujahedeen civil war broke out, and Jalaluddin, together with Mawlawis Nabi Muhammadi and Yunus Khalis, remained neutral. Jalaluddin was approached repeatedly, including by the Shiite Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, to mediate.

“My father, Mawlawi Khalis and others were strongly opposed to the civil war,” Anas said. Jalaluddin had even declined a post in the new mujahedeen cabinet as minister of education in protest at the fighting. “He was unequivocal in labeling it as fratricide,” Anas added.

But once the Taliban emerged, Jalaluddin went on to play a significant military role in consolidating their hold on Afghanistan. He buttressed their front lines with thousands of Haqqani fighters in the early days of the post-Soviet civil war, battling warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s militia around Mazar-e-Sharif and commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces in Shamali, where the Taliban lacked tactical expertise. Greater Paktia, the fiefdom run by Jalaluddin, enjoyed autonomy from Kandahar, Taliban’s de-facto capital.

Then came 9/11. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan changed life dramatically for Anas, as his family took a leading role in the Taliban insurgency against U.S.-led forces. Four of his brothers were killed, in addition to the tens of family members who had died fighting the communists two decades before.

Though the much sensationalized “Arab Afghans” were active in the area, their role in the fighting has been wildly exaggerated. The Arabs mostly fought under the banner of the Salafi Ittihad-e-Islami led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. Tensions routinely flared up between them and their local hosts, over practices as menial as ta’weez (amulets) that Arab activists viewed as shirk, or polytheistic. Among these hosts were the Haqqanis who were fighting under the banner of Mawlawi Yunus Khalis and rooted in the religious traditions of the Pashtun tribal belt.

And therein lies an irony of the wars against the Soviets and later the Americans. Those considered moderate during the Soviet jihad consisted of traditionalists and monarchists keen on accommodating local context and norms. Among those were the Haqqanis. Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Afghans, on the other hand, were generally considered extreme, dogmatic in their understanding of how to govern society. These perceptions changed after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Most of the extremists of the 1980s joined the new U.S.-backed government, while traditionalists did not, which solidified their reputation as fanatics globally.

The Taliban of 2021 seem keen to distance themselves from their association with jihadist groups. The Haqqanis are signatories to the peace agreement signed in Doha, which stipulated that the Taliban would not allow “disruptive” groups to use their territory to launch attacks abroad. That pledge has since been repeated by Sirajuddin, who mentioned disruptive groups, albeit without mentioning al Qaeda by name.

Anas recalled his father’s firm insistence on his education, especially his religious instruction. He wanted Anas to learn tribal history and the multiple languages native to Afghanistan, as well as Arabic, the lingua franca of Islam and jihad. By January 2014, when Anas last saw his father, Jalaluddin was no longer the formidable commander he had been. He was frail, paralyzed on his right side, and exhausted. He and his family routinely moved between a network of temporary houses to avoid the omnipresent drones overhead.

In his will Jalaluddin bequeathed to Anas and his brothers the many mosques he operated on both sides of the Durand Line, as well as hundreds of books. Jalaluddin extracted a vow from his youngest son to protect the books and to study them intently. Jalaluddin died in 2018, while Anas was still confined in Bagram.

This pedigree, being the son of a noted mujahed, guaranteed Anas’ rise to prominence within the movement.

After an unpredictable Taliban takeover of the country, Afghan factions find themselves once again negotiating. Anas believes that, just like during the civil war, Jalaluddin would have sought compromises to prevent fratricide. “He was a mediator, a man of the jirga [Pashtun tribal assembly]. He appreciated the sanctity of the jirga in our ‘urf, dowd and deen [custom, tradition and religion],” Anas said.

Anas’ recollections, however, are selective and conveniently omit the Haqqanis own contributions to fratricide. The Haqqanis are accused of orchestrating a string of high-profile, deadly attacks, and there is even footage of Badruddin, Anas’ brother, directing an attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, a popular destination for Western security officials.

According to then-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in 2011, the Haqqanis are a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), long considered by Western intelligence to be the principal state enabler of the Taliban. Anas said this is a “total lie.” There is a clear contradiction, he says, between the accusation of operating as a Pakistani proxy and the admiral’s other accusation that the network is fighting against Islamabad to win autonomy for its tribal belt along the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He also rejected the distinction between the Haqqanis and the Taliban. “We are the Taliban,” he said. Any attacks his family were involved in were not conducted independently but are representative of the entire group. Anas is also not remorseful for the role of his group or family in the last two decades. To him, they are freedom fighters who fought for their independence.

To those who suffered at the hands of his family, Anas’ message is unequivocal.

“The halwa [confectionery] of war is distributed evenly. We, too, as a family, have suffered many losses, women and children included. Our view is that of the Emirate: We have to forgive those on the other side.”

On Aug. 18, Anas was pictured in Kabul with Hamid Karzai and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He was also pictured with former speaker of the Afghan Senate, Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, who had been outspoken in calling for Anas’ execution during his imprisonment.

Courtesy of the author

Notwithstanding such conciliatory remarks, to what extent the general amnesty for its former foes can be guaranteed is shrouded in doubt, as reports emerge that Taliban fighters behaving contrary to these statements, acts that Taliban leaders say are a result of a lack of discipline. There have been reports of the Taliban killing and torturing ethnic Hazaras, Shiite Muslims, in the province of Ghazni in July, as well as going house-to-house searching for individuals who worked with U.S. and NATO forces. The day Anas was photographed with former rivals, a family member of a Deutsche Welle journalist was killed and another injured by the Taliban after they were unable to find the journalist.

It is possible, however, that the Taliban leaders will honor their offer of clemency and forgiveness, not for altruistic reasons but because it allows the group to cast themselves as a legitimate political actor markedly different from how it conducted itself the last time it was in power. It may also be a shrewd attempt to defuse resistance from those aggrieved by the group during its brutal insurgency. Including former officials in a new government may also be the group’s attempt to secure international recognition.

The Taliban of 2021 have sought to portray themselves as being different from when they were in power in the late 1990s. Even though they have not changed ideologically, they also believe they cannot ignore the radically different circumstances to those of the 1990s. From a religious point of view, the change in circumstances — which include the change in Afghan society, the pursuit of international recognition and the sheer experience they have had since they were last in government — mean they need to adjust their legal judgments and methodological process in the way they deal with the new Afghanistan they now control. This is how they justify their need for change, attributing it not to an ideological shift or epiphany but to the emergence of a new reality.

Anas is tight-lipped about the future. “We want an Islamic system reflecting the values of Afghans,” he said, echoing what is now a Taliban cliche. “All official announcements are made through our spokesperson,” he added, smiling. “That is our strength. We don’t have multiple people making statements.”

The Taliban’s policy in the 1990s was based on co-opting enemies and neutral parties (such as the Haqqanis) wherever possible. Anas talked about reconciliation and pragmatism, but for all his Pashto verses, there is no real indication how the younger Taliban, personified by Anas, will differ from the older generation. Many ordinary Afghans fear this generation are offering interviews and soundbites as part of a public relations war, and will be as brutal in power as they were before.

The tense atmosphere that has permeated Kabul since the Taliban took over on Aug. 15 exploded on Aug. 26 as two bombs went off near the airport killing over 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. The city’s new rulers have so far struggled to keep rival politicians in line, and an anti-Taliban resistance has now broken out in Panjshir. A humanitarian and economic crisis looms as the donor-dependent Afghan economy is deprived of foreign funds, the country is stricken with drought, and a large part of the population is internally displaced. Does Anas think the new Afghanistan he envisages will come into being under these circumstances? “Inshallah,” he said.

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