Death of Afghan group’s founder unlikely to weaken outlaw militants

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The death of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of Afghanistan’s outlawed militant network that bears his name, is unlikely to weaken the group that is considered the most formidable of the Taliban’s fighting forces.

The Taliban said Haqqani died Monday at age 71 after reports of years of ill health, including Parkinson’s disease. Because of his infirmity, stewardship of the organization had been given to one of his 12 sons, Sirajuddin, whose military prowess is credited with plotting and carrying out some of more audacious attacks assigned to the network.

The younger Haqqani also is deputy head of the Taliban, who have waged increasingly sophisticated and coordinated attacks against Afghanistan’s struggling security forces. Washington’s own watchdog in a recent report said nearly half of Afghanistan is either under the control of the Taliban or influenced by the religious militia.

Jalaluddin Haqqani, once hailed as a freedom fighter by President Ronald Reagan for opposing the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan during the Cold War, had been paralyzed for the past 10 years, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Reports of his death were widespread in 2015, and he had not been heard from in several years.

In announcing his death, Mujahed called Haqqani a religious scholar and exemplary warrior. The United States declared the Haqqani network a terrorist organization in 2012, and it has been one of the fiercest opponents for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The elder Haqqani’s death is not expected to affect the network’s military might or strategy.

One of the most resilient of Afghanistan’s insurgents, Haqqani joined the Taliban when they overran Kabul in September 1996, expelling feuding fighters whose battles left the capital in ruins.

Haqqani was among the Afghan mujahedeen, or holy warriors, that the United States backed to fight the former Soviet Union’s invading army that entered Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a pro-Moscow communist government. Haqqani was praised by the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson as “goodness personified.” After 10 years in Afghanistan, Moscow negotiated an exit from the country in an agreement that eventually led to the collapse of Kabul’s government and a takeover by the mujahedeen.

Declassified U.S. cables called Haqqani a “moderate socialist” who did not embrace the Taliban’s strict rules that denied education to girls. “Haqqani functions more in the military area, and is not a force in setting Taliban political or social issues,” the cables read.

Born in 1947 into the powerful Zardran tribe that dominates southeastern Afghanistan’s Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces, Haqqani was a close friend of Osama bin Laden, who often took refuge in his camps outside Khost.

Haqqani’s rigid interpretation of Islam launched him on the road to insurgency in the early 1970s when he returned to Afghanistan to open a madrassa and organized a movement against Afghanistan’s monarch, King Zahir Shah, according to unclassified U.S. documents that tracked Haqqani’s militant career.

Forced to leave Afghanistan because of his agitation against the monarchy, which was eventually overthrown, Haqqani set up a madrassa in Miran Shah, in Pakistan’s North Waziristan.

During the 1980s, Haqqani’s military prowess in Afghanistan brought him attention from the United States and Pakistan. He received money and weapons from the U.S.

While the Soviet Union poured in men and money, weapons were sent to Pakistan by the U.S. and several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Suitcases full of cash were delivered to the mujahedeen through Pakistan,

Fighters from the Muslim world were recruited to fight the Soviets, and bin Laden was among the first to sign up. Many of the Arab fighters were drawn toward Haqqani because he was an Arabic speaker and a ferocious warrior.