Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Peaceful Death Is An Affront to Everything Good

You get used to the sound of the air­craft. Most of the time it’s a heli­copter, the whip of its rotor blades muf­fled by dis­tance and land­scape. Some­times it is a pro­peller plane, maybe one of the Black­wa­ter mail car­ri­ers, weav­ing through the canyons. Or maybe it’s the scream of an F‑15 launch­ing from the air­field, after­burn­ers on full blast so it won’t linger too long at a low alti­tude where an RPG might hit it.

There is a flow and a rhythm to the sounds on a for­ward oper­at­ing base. The rum­ble of MRAPs, the stac­ca­to of fire drills down by the range, the 4/4 time sig­na­ture of a PT march, the grunt of men lift­ing weights at the out­side gym. These become back­ground. These help you notice when there is a sound that is out of the ordi­nary. A sound like a mor­tar fly­ing over­head and explod­ing a few hun­dred feet away while you eat lunch. A sound like the loud­speak­er yelling “Sham­rock Red, Sham­rock Red” because some­one got injured and was being rushed to the trau­ma unit. A sound like a dis­tant thun­der, fol­lowed by a shock­wave rat­tling the win­dows, as a truck bomb explodes up the road with such force it cre­ates its own wind sys­tem through the near­by val­leys.

When I was at FOB Saler­no, in Khost, Afghanistan, these un-ordi­nary sounds were most­ly the result of Jalalud­din Haqqani, a sto­ried Afghan fight­er and ter­ror­ist who is from the area and com­mit­ted vio­lence upon its peo­ple for decades. He had begun his career as an anti-Sovi­et fight­er, famous for blunt­ing Sovi­et offens­es along the east­ern bor­der with Pak­istan. In one famous series of bat­tles in 1985, his band of mujahideen fought off a mas­sive Sovi­et assault, killing hun­dreds of Afghan sol­diers, cap­tur­ing hun­dreds more, and exe­cut­ing dozens of offi­cers who sur­ren­dered (a war crime). Lat­er, as one of the last hur­rahs of the war, the Sovi­ets launched Oper­a­tion Magis­tral, to recap­ture a per­ilous road link­ing Ghazni and Khost. While Jalalud­din com­mand­ed maybe 10,000 fight­ers at the time, the Sovi­ets poured near­ly 30,000 — two divi­sions — into the cam­paign. The Sovi­ets beat back the Haqqa­nis this time, though at the cost of over a thou­sand troops.

That was what made the Haqqa­nis so famous in the 80s: they might not always win, but they would make you bleed. They were good at it, and it was why the CIA fund­ed them so lav­ish­ly. Char­lie Wil­son called him “good­ness per­son­i­fied” for the sim­ple rea­son that he was real­ly good at killing Rus­sians and the Afghans who worked for them. Of course, that bru­tal­i­ty was a dou­ble edged sword. He cul­ti­vat­ed and trained a young mil­i­tant named Osama bin Laden, help­ing him to cre­ate his own Arab-led mili­tia in the wilder­ness of east­ern Afghanistan. While he main­tained a stud­ied neu­tral­i­ty as the gov­er­nor of Khost dur­ing the mujahideen civ­il war in the ear­ly 90s, Jalalud­din joined the Tal­iban in 1995, and almost imme­di­ate­ly set about eth­ni­cal­ly cleans­ing Tajiks from the Shoma­li Plain north of Kab­ul (upward of 200,000 peo­ple were forced from their home in a scorched earth pol­i­cy of incred­i­ble bru­tal­i­ty).

Of course, Haqqani, a Pash­tun, was hard­ly unique in treat­ing oth­er eth­nic groups hor­ri­bly. Abdul Rashid Dos­tum, an Uzbek war­lord from the north who is still beloved by many Amer­i­cans, was fond of tor­tur­ing peo­ple to death and suf­fo­cat­ing them inside locked ship­ping con­tain­ers. The beloved Ahmed Shah Mas­soud, a Tajik war­lord assas­si­nat­ed by the Tal­iban as a part of the 9/11 con­spir­a­cy, com­mit­ted hor­ren­dous crimes against the Haz­ara minor­i­ty when he was in the mujahideen gov­ern­ment as well: indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing, mass killing, and so on.

Every­one has blood on their hands in Afghanistan, so what makes the Haqqa­nis so bad? In part it is because they reject­ed their old patron, the CIA, when we invad­ed Afghanistan in 2001. Jalalud­din Haqqani blunt­ly called the CIA the van­guard of an infi­del inva­sion, and said as a good Mus­lim it was his duty to resist. This was not a char­ac­ter change for him — he was res­olute­ly opposed to non-Islam­ic influ­ences in Afghanistan. But the CIA bad­ly mis­judged their rela­tion­ship with him. They thought they were allies; he thought they were an ATM but not nec­es­sary to his strug­gle.

Lat­er, Pak­istan’s intel­li­gence ser­vice, the ISI, recruit­ed him as an asset — part of their coopt­ing the Tal­iban despite being our osten­si­ble ally. One thing Amer­i­ca nev­er for­gives is a plain­ly spo­ken insult to our pride — it is why we insist on call­ing Sau­di Ara­bia and Pak­istan allies, despite their open­ly fund­ing ter­ror­ist move­ments that kill our peo­ple and sow mis­ery in the world (and in Pak­istan’s case, inten­tion­al­ly pro­lif­er­at­ing nuclear weapons tech­nol­o­gy to Syr­ia, Iran, and North Korea), but call Iran an ene­my, even though they haven’t done half as much. Iran insult­ed us dur­ing the Embassy seige in 1979; they did­n’t (though, again, Pak­istani mil­i­tants did torch the US Embassy that year). Pak­istan has not offi­cial­ly insult­ed us. Not real­ly, not yet. We tepid­ly protest their state spon­sor­ship of ter­ror­ism that kills thou­sands every year, promise to our­selves that we are mak­ing the right choice by ally­ing with them, and won­der why things go so wrong.

The oth­er part of what made the Haqqa­nis so bad was who they tar­get­ed — not just mil­i­tary tar­gets, though the Amer­i­can habit of try­ing to crim­i­nal­ize “fight­ing against the U.S. mil­i­tary dur­ing a war” is cer­tain­ly a weird thing worth explor­ing else­where, but civil­ians. The Haqqa­nis and their fol­low­ers took a par­tic­u­lar joy in bomb­ing peo­ple who should be off-lim­its in con­flict. They bombed ambu­lances in Kab­ul, schools in Khost, bus­es in Ghazni, and so on. More­over, they ran a busi­ness empire in Afghanistan and Pak­istan (and, to a less­er degree, in the UAE) under the pro­tec­tion of Pak­istan’s intel­li­gence ser­vices, like a mafia fam­i­ly. When the Haqqa­nis bombed the US Embassy in Kab­ul, the US chose to large­ly blame the ISI for it (though, again, noth­ing real­ly came of it). They kid­napped and extort­ed for ran­som — Cait­lan Cole­man and Joshua Boyle say the Haqqa­nis raped her repeat­ed­ly and mur­dered one of their chil­dren — and they tor­tured Bowe Bergdahl after he aban­doned his post. Jalalud­din lead, par­tic­i­pat­ed in, and over­saw a move­ment that is as evil as one can be in this world.

This week, the Tal­iban announced that Jalalud­din Haqqani lost a long bat­tle with “ill­ness” and, pre­sum­ably, old age. He died sur­round­ed by what’s left of his fam­i­ly and his friends. He was no longer a com­mand­ing fig­ure in the ter­ror­ist move­ment he found­ed — years ago, that passed to his son, Sir­a­jud­din — but he remained a pow­er­ful social and polit­i­cal force in the ter­ror­ist ecosys­tem of the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der region.

That Jalalud­din was able to die at home, in rel­a­tive peace, is an affront to every­thing that is good and just in the world. He was respon­si­ble for destroy­ing tens of thou­sands of lives through his unend­ing bru­tal­i­ty, and his vic­tims were nev­er afford­ed such a lux­u­ry. More to the point, sev­en­teen years of war — next month marks the start of year eigh­teen — did­n’t touch him. The US was able to find and kill Osama bin Laden while he lived under offi­cial cov­er inside Pak­istan just up the road from their pre­mier mil­i­tary acad­e­my in Abbot­tabad. But they were nev­er able to nav­i­gate the intel­li­gence, trib­al groups, and pol­i­tics of the US-Pak­istan, US-Afghanistan, and Afghanistan-Pak­istan rela­tion­ship to nab this sin­gu­lar­ly bru­tal and vio­lent man. That his son has grown up to be a senior leader in the Tal­iban is a fur­ther insult to any sense of jus­tice in the world. It is sim­ply not fair that he died under such nor­mal cir­cum­stances while his chil­dren con­tin­ue to bru­tal­ly occu­py places like Ghazni city, ter­ror­iz­ing the peo­ple who live there into mis­ery and sub­servience.

I remem­ber sit­ting in a plan­ning meet­ing at FOB Saler­no, in Khost province, a lit­tle over eight years ago. They knew the Haqqa­nis were out there, they could hear them talk­ing on their radios. The Haqqa­nis loved to plant mor­tars in the hills around Sal and lob explo­sives indis­crim­i­nate­ly into the base, hop­ing to maim a few peo­ple and keep every­one ner­vous. It worked. The base had recent­ly installed auto­mat­ic mor­tar defense can­nons, which could iden­ti­fy the loca­tion of those mor­tars and imme­di­ate­ly return pre­cise bom­bard­ments to destroy them. The Haqqa­nis set timers and walked away, nev­er risk­ing them­selves in the process. I remem­ber eat­ing lunch with my col­leagues, sit­ting at a table out­side, and hear­ing the rounds siz­zle over­head and explode in the near­by vehi­cle depot, and the boom of the return bat­ter­ies, and the muf­fled whumpf of impact a half mile away.

At this plan­ning meet­ing, they could­n’t wrap their heads around what the Haqqa­nis were. I was there to help them under­stand, but it did­n’t click for them. The Haqqa­nis exist­ed both with­in and beyond the local patch­work of com­mu­ni­ty groups (fam­i­lies, tribes, tanz­ims, and so on), which meant they had local knowl­edge and local con­tacts, but a net­work of resources beyond. I remem­ber sit­ting down with some­one from the CIA — this was a few months before their own triple agent killed sev­en of their agents up the road at FOB Chap­man — and ask­ing why they had­n’t tak­en defin­i­tive action against the Haqqa­nis. She did­n’t have an answer, but she nev­er did, that was just how they oper­at­ed. The CIA was, ulti­mate­ly, blind­ed by its own creduli­ty and refusal to think about con­se­quences. When she and I spoke, they were train­ing anoth­er mili­tia, the Khost Pro­tec­tion Force, which, true to form, imme­di­ate­ly turned into a death squad and began ter­ror­iz­ing and killing civil­ians. His­to­ry rhymes just like the sounds of a FOB.

While Haqqani’s peace­ful death is an offense, it is also mean­ing­less. Because he was allowed to pass on from lead­er­ship, to hand it off in an ordered and delib­er­ate fash­ion to his son, his dying won’t affect a thing in the Afghanistan con­flict. Our same mis­takes keep get­ting repeat­ed, and our same refusal to learn or adapt keep us trapped there, in eter­nal low-grade con­flict. It is so hard to see an end to this that does­n’t involve with­draw­al, yet such an out­come would con­demn mil­lions of inno­cent peo­ple to mis­ery. Even so, I strug­gle, hard, to see what pos­si­ble good we can do there any­more. Maybe we can hold the line, at our own hor­ren­dous cost. But maybe it’s time for us to let go, as Jalalud­din has, and let the Afghans fig­ure out how to fight on their own.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.