KABUL — A top leader of an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban, who was once an ally of the United States and later became one of its fiercest opponents in Afghanistan, has died, the Taliban announced Tuesday.
The radical Islamist group said in a statement that Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of one of the most effective militant networks in Afghanistan, “passed away after a long battle with illness.” It did not specify a time, place or cause of death. He reportedly had Parkinson’s disease and had been paralyzed for a decade.
Haqqani “was ill and bedridden for the past several years,” the statement said. He was believed to be in his late 70s. His sons long ago took over the day-to-day running of the group known as the Haqqani network, and at a time of increased Taliban attacks on the government, his death is expected to have little impact.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told the Associated Press that Haqqani died Monday inside Afghanistan. There was no independent confirmation of that. The Haqqani network is believed to be based primarily in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region, and the Taliban has been known to delay announcements of leaders’ deaths, sometimes by years. There were unconfirmed reports of Haqqani’s death in 2015.
Haqqani was among the main recipients of U.S. covert military and financial aid during the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet army in the 1980s, and he was once hailed as a freedom fighter by President Ronald Reagan. He joined the Taliban movement after it took over the country in 1996, serving as a cabinet minister and provincial governor.
As an Arabic speaker, Haqqani attracted Arab fighters who joined the battle against the Soviets and, later, the Taliban’s campaign against Afghan resistance forces. He notably befriended Osama bin Laden and protected the al-Qaeda leader in camps he controlled.
When Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes toppled the Taliban in 2001, Haqqani put his considerable military experience to work in fighting the Americans. His network introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, experts said. The United States formally declared the Haqqani network a terrorist organization in 2012.
Hailing from a powerful Pashtun tribe in eastern Afghanistan, Haqqani had historical ties to some of the rich Arab nations and Pakistan, including the Pakistani intelligence service. He set up his own front in the border region with Pakistan and called it the Haqqani network, while still considering himself a member of the Taliban.
The network launched several high-profile attacks against U.S. and Afghan troops. Now run by one of his sons, Sirajuddin Haqqani, it also has been behind abductions of foreign nationals in Afghanistan.
Jalaluddin Haqqani lost a wife, four of his sons and several other family members in U.S. airstrikes and attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the years.
One of his sons has been languishing for the past several years in an Afghan prison under a death sentence. The government, however, has reportedly hesitated to execute him because the network since 2016 has held captive two instructors who taught at American University in Kabul; one of them is an American citizen.
Haqqani was reported to have at least seven sons and possibly as many as 12.
Observers, lawmakers and officials think his demise will have no major impact on the Taliban’s expanding advances on the battlefield or on efforts to revive stalled peace talks with the group.
Among those who see Haqqani’s death as unlikely to affect the current political or military situation in the country is Michael Kugelman, an expert on Afghanistan at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
“Given how long he had been ill, his death won’t have a big impact on the war. But still a major loss for the [Haqqani network],” he said in a tweet.
In its statement, the Taliban said Haqqani was one of the great figures of the movement and helped keep it united through the years.
“The actions and exploits of Haqqani Sahib and his untiring efforts to keep the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] united in the face of American invasion are golden chapters of history which future Islamic generations shall forever be proud of,” it said.
Born in eastern Afghanistan in 1939, according to an interview he gave to an Arabic jihadist magazine in the 1980s, Haqqani studied at a conservative madrassa, or Islamic school, in northwestern Pakistan. He opposed Afghanistan’s monarchy and took up arms against the country’s leftist governments after the king was overthrown in 1973.
When Soviet forces invaded in late 1979 and installed a puppet government, Haqqani became a key ally of the United States and Pakistan in battling the occupation, receiving large payments from the CIA and from Arabic countries.
Charlie Wilson, then a Democratic congressman from Texas who lobbied for aid to the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgents, once hailed Haqqani as “goodness personified.”
After mujahideen forces captured Kabul in 1992, Haqqani was named justice minister in the new government. He refused to take sides in internecine warfare that broke out among Afghan factions — fighting that left parts of Kabul in ruins and paved the way for the Taliban to take over.
He allied himself with the Taliban when the movement seized power in 1996 and was involved in a brutal campaign against ethnic Tajiks north of Kabul, a base of support for anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Haqqani served in the Taliban government as minister of borders and tribal affairs, governor of Paktia province and, shortly before the fall of the Taliban, overall military commander. In that role, he is believed to have been involved in helping bin Laden escape U.S. efforts to capture him.
When a combination of U.S. airstrikes and Afghan rebel ground forces drove the Taliban from power in November 2001, ending five years of repressive rule, Haqqani was nowhere to be found.
Branigin reported from Washington.