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.