Islamabad: A shadowy, Pakistan-based militant faction is on the rise within the Taliban after its leader was appointed deputy and played a key role in unifying the fractured insurgency.
The ascendency of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist organization, could significantly strengthen the Taliban and herald another summer of fierce fighting in Afghanistan. The firepower it brings to the Taliban was shown by a Kabul bombing last month that killed 64 people, the deadliest in the Afghan capital in years, which experts say was too sophisticated for the insurgents to have carried out without the Haqqanis.
The network's role could also further poison already tainted relations between Islamabad and Kabul. Afghanistan is pressing Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqanis, accusing it of tolerating the group, a charge the Pakistanis deny.
An audio recording of a recent meeting of the top Taliban leadership, obtained by The Associated Press, offers a glimpse into the influence the Haqqani network now holds within the movement. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network's leader and newly elevated deputy head of the Taliban, tells the gathering that they must end differences and focus on fighting. "It is time to work.
The mujahedeen (Islamic holy warriors) are happily going to the battlefield," he is heard saying. The voice is recognizable as Haqqani's.
Haqqani's rise to the deputy post is the highest, most direct role that the network is known to have taken in the Taliban leadership. The network pledged allegiance to the Taliban years ago but has traditionally operated independently.
The network was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a one-time ally of the United States who achieved fame fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and who developed close ties to the slain al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. After his death, his son Sirajuddin Haqqani took over.
The elder Haqqani aligned his group with the Taliban after the insurgents were driven from power in the US-led invasion that followed the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. He was a formidable militant financier, traveling to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to raise money. The network maintained close ties to al Qaeda and is believed to have large numbers of Arab and other foreign fighters.